Posts Tagged ‘history of science’

Future Food in Coprolites

21 May 2013


NB: I’m putting this here ’cause, the Tumblr theme I insist on using is dreadful for longform and I don’t know if Yahoo is going to eat all of my brains and turn them into daily horrorscopes or whatever and Google is about to kill reader so bye and thanks if we lose touch and I know I shouldn’t be publishing quasi-original [though admittedly trivial] Google books assisted history of science research on this neglected podunk weblog again but so sue me and maybe if I get the chance I will tell you about the UN sometime but so anyway here we are.

Mary Anning’s “fourth notebook” is a “commonplace book” that dates from the last years of the famous fossil hunter’s life. The book, which somehow wound up in the personal library of Richard Owen and is now in the collection of the Dorset County Museum, contains several distinctive essays and poems. The authorship of these have sometimes been attributed to Anning herself (for example see this fine recent biographical sketch by Davis [2009]) but it appears more likely that she actually transcribed them from other publications. I guess this is the kind of thing people did before Tumblr.

One poem (the first few lines of which are shown in Mary’s hand above) is particularly entertaining, at least assuming that you are hip to inside jokes about early 19th Century geologists and geological debates. It is a satirical ode to Roderick Murchison, the Scottish geologist who was knighted in 1846.

It appears to have been composed by a Cambridge physician writing under the pseudonym “The Travelling Bachelor” and was originally published in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1846. It was transcribed by Anning in the same year, or shortly thereafter. Mary was well acquainted with the Victorian scientists that are lampooned in the poem, and we can imagine she was amused by the send-up, although whether she was sympathetic to the sentiments is hard to say. Owen himself gets a gentle ribbing about his anatomical obsessions, one wonders if he was amused or irritated by this poem that was so carefully copied down by Anning.

Encomium Murchisonaum 

Who first surveyed the Russian states?
And made the great Azoic dates?
And worked the Scandinavian states?
Sir Roderick

Who calculated nature’s shocks?
And proved the low Silurian rock
Detritus of more ancient flocks?
Sir Roderick

Who knows of what all rocks consist?
And sees his way where all is mist
About the metamorphic schist?
Sir Roderick

Who draws distinctions clear and nice
Between the old and new gneiss?
And talks no nonsense about ice.
Sir Roderick

Let others then, their stand maintain,
Work all for glory, nought for gain,
And each finds faults, but none complain.
Sir Roderick

Let Sedgwick say how things began,
Defend the old creation plan,
And smash the new one, if he can.
Sir Roderick

Let Buckland set the land to rights,
Find meat and peas, and starch in blights,
And future food in coprolites.
Sir Roderick

Let Agassiz appreciate tails,
And like the virgin old the scales,
And Owen draw the teeth of whales.
Sir Roderick

Take Thou thy orders hard to spell,
And titles more then man can spell.
I wish all such were earned so well.
Sir Roderick


Thomas Jefferson, the reluctant seismologist

24 August 2011

Photo by Trevor.Huxman used under Creative Commons 2.0

Depite his distinction as the first American paleontologist (sorta), Thomas Jefferson was something of geophobe.  In a letter written in 1805, Jefferson confessed:

I have not much indulged myself in geological inquiries, from a belief that the skin-deep scratches which we can make or find on the surface of the earth, do not repay our time with as certain and useful deductions as our pursuits in some other branches.

Five years later, fresh out of the Presidency, Jefferson ducked an inquiry from Thomas Cooper regarding the geology of Virginia on similar grounds, “Our researches into the texture of our globe could be but so superficial, compared with its vast interior construction, that I saw no safety of conclusion from the one, as to the other.”

Despite his avowed geo-agnosticism, Jefferson was both well-versed in the geological thinking of his day and an attentive observer of the geologic forces that shaped the landscape around him. In Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson provides a detailed discussion of the Deluge theory that dominated geological thinking in the 18th Century, but voices considerable skepticism that the distribution of rocks and fossils on the Earth could be easily explained by events recorded in Genesis. Jefferson recognized that tilted strata and seashells lodged in the sides of mountains suggested some significant geological “convulsions” in the past. But he was never comfortable that studies of rocks could ever truly clarify the ancient history of the Earth, concluding, “Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”

Nevertheless, later in that same work Jefferson wrote thoughtfully about the geomorphic landscape of western Virginia, in prose so vivid that it puts John McPhee to shame. Here he even reveals some nascent appreciation for the geologic forces that shaped that terrain.

The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain an hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac, in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea. The first glance of this scene hurries our senses into the opinion, that this earth has been created in time, that the mountains were formed first, that the rivers began to flow afterwards, that in this place particularly they have been dammed up by the Blue ridge of mountains, and have formed an ocean which filled the whole valley; that continuing to rise they have at length broken over at this spot, and have torn the mountain down from its summit to its base. The piles of rock on each hand, but particularly on the Shenandoah, the evident marks of their disrupture and avulsion from their beds by the most powerful agents of nature, corroborate the impression. But the distant finishing which nature has given to the picture is of a very different character. It is a true contrast to the fore-ground. It is as placid and delightful, as that is wild and tremendous. For the mountain being cloven asunder, she presents to your eye, through the cleft, a small catch of smooth blue horizon, at an infinite distance in the plain country, inviting you, as it were, from the riot and tumult roaring around, to pass through the breach and participate of the calm below. Here the eye ultimately composes itself; and that way too the road happens actually to lead. You cross the Patowmac above the junction, pass along its side through the base of the mountain for three miles, its terrible precipices hanging in fragments over you, and within about 20 miles reach Frederictown and the fine country round that. This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic. Yet here, as in the neighbourhood of the natural bridge, are people who have passed their lives within half a dozen miles, and have never been to survey these monuments of a war between rivers and mountains, which must have shaken the earth itself to its center. – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia 1781-1783.

But sometimes the mountain comes to Monticello. Jefferson himself recorded a convulsion that shook the state of Virginia in 1774,

“Feb. 21, at 2:11 P. M. felt a shock of an earthquake at Monticello. it shook the houses so sensibly everybody ran out of doors.” – Excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, edited by Edwin Morris Betts (1999).

Despite this rather cool account, the 1774 quake may have played a role in a family calamity, the death of Jefferson’s sister Elizabeth, whose body was found floating in the Rivanna river three days after the quake. Elizabeth, “rather deficient in intellect” may have been attempting to flee from the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks when she was caught up in the flooding river. Maybe.

Geologic instability in central Virginia also shook up Jefferson’s granddaughter, when a quake hit in 1833.

Edgehill, Aug. 28, 1833.
… We had the most severe shock from an earthquake yesterday morning that had ever been experienced before by any of us … When it began the noise resembled the rolling of a wheel barrow, or something heavier, under the house, but gradually increasing until the house trembled all over. A dressing box on one of the tables being open, and the top leaning against the wall, was shaken almost off the table. It would have fallen, I suppose, if its fall had not been arrested by Mary Page’s hand, which she put out to save it. The windows rattled violently, and I began to fear the chimney might be shaken off, and made Emily, who was sitting near the fireplace … move away. When it had reached its heighth it gradually diminished until it went off entirely. The children from the nursery ran into my room, and Patsy and Mary followed them. I never saw so many pale faces and blue lips. I think it must have been partly occasioned by the motion: of the house and partly from terror … I have heard of the trembling of a vessel in a storm sometimes, & I think the motion of the house must have resembled it. – From MacCarthy 1958, “A Note on the Virginia Earthquake of 1833”.

Judging from contemporary accounts, that quake was likely centered on the same Central Virginia Seismic Zone that gave rise to yesterday’s tremor. The 1774 earthquake felt by Jefferson might well have had similar origins.

It’s hard not to wonder. Perhaps, if the magnitude of the 1774 Virginia earthquake that shook Monticello had been on par with the August 23, 2011 quake, it might have shaken into Jefferson a greater curiosity about the goings on beneath his feet. But, perhaps it’s for the best he didn’t get distracted, Jefferson had other things to do.

It is now above a fortnight since Congress should have met, and six States only appear. We have some hopes of Rhode Island coming in to-day, but when two more will be added seems as insuceptible of calculation as when the next earthquake will happen – Thomas Jefferson in a letter to James Madison, December 1783.

Postscript: 1000000 bonus points to the enterprising journalist or historian who tracks down Jefferson’s living descendants and records their personal experience of yesterday’s earthquake for posterity.

Ours is not to look back. Ours is to continue the crack.

14 May 2010

Our traditionalist is now beginning to worry, but he will grant this one last point pour mieux sauter.  OK, the very first Cambrian fauna included a plethora of alternative possibilities, all equally sensible and none leading to us.  But, surely, once the modern fauna arose in the next phase of the Cambrian, called Atdabanian after another Russian locality, then the boundaries and channels were finally set.  The arrival of trilobites, those familiar symbols of the Cambrian, must mark the end of craziness and the inception of predictability.  Let the good times roll.

This book is quite long enough already, and you do not want a “second verse, same as the first.” I merely point out that the Burgess Shale represents the early and maximal extent of the Atdabanian radiation.  The story of the Burgess Shale is the tale of life itself, not a unique and peculiar episode of possibilities gone wild.SJ Gould Wonderful Life (1989)

Had it in my head, tindered by a typically turgid comment I left over at Jerry Coyne’s blog, to write something about the phantasmic Fezouata fauna. About contingency and determinism and prehistoriography.

The first god had, in his garden, one of these I'm sure. Ordovician marrellomorph from the cover of this week's Nature / Van Roy et al. 2010. A strong contender for my next paleo-ink.

About Wonderful Life and Crucible of Creation. About broken molds and Technicolor films. About checking the guy’s rock record and replaying life’s wobbly mistracked tape.

this is what the late eighties was like

[I biked over the library after Schluter’s talk and grabbed some books.  “That’s a small book,” the librarian remarked about the paperback version of WL, recut into hardback form, “but I’m sure it’s filled with big ideas”]

And about GOBE and rocks from space. About evolutionary anachronism and steampunk anomalocaridids and Schinderhannes. About Chengjiang and Emu Bay and Orsten.

[I Googled.]

About Caratacus and the Ordovices and predictable outcomes. About the Cincinnati arch and Creation Museum atop it. About how those that ignore history are doomed to not worry about it too much, along the way.

[I read.]

And yes about the other big and massively under-celebrated early Paleozoic news this week: Cambrian Bryozoans (!) and Gondwanan echinoderms.

[I typed.]

And ultimately about how, really, all of this maybe shows not so much about the fickle nature of history or the inevitability of intelligence or even about foolish it is to draw deep philosophical lessons from a crappy fossil record.  But that, well, the Earth was a really weird place 550, 450, 250, 50, 5 million years ago and that we have a lot more surprises in store and a lot more to learn.  But we will, in fits and starts, and what we do discover will change our picture of our place in the universe.  Or maybe it won’t.

[I hit delete.]

Because it’s Friday afternoon, and that all sounds pretty damn pretentious and sappy and inconclusive.  Why not throw together a link-heavy meta-post [I thought], then sit back and watch the links decay over the years until all that’s left is an ambiguous smear that’s difficult to make any sense of.

Then I remembered that it’s post a Fall song on your blog day.

A Trustworthy Pistosaur

8 March 2010

Just to prove that I am, in fact, working:

So it was possible to make a reconstruction of this skeleton with the skull of Pistosaurus.  It has the length of about 3 meters.  There is no doubt, that it represents a primitive Plesiosaur, the same result is also given by the details of the skull.  With exception of interclavicle and clavicle the whole skeleton is drawn from a single individual, the “Strunz skeleton”; the skull is drawn from Pistosaurus longaevus. It is possible that the “Strunz skeleton” is specifically different from the “Geissler skeleton” of which interclavicle and clavicle are taken, but both are Plesiosaurs, and so are both of the same described skulls.  An [sic] eventual difference will be small.  Therefore the reconstruction is a trustworthy Pistosaurus. — Von Huene 1948

Don’t know that I would trust him to give my kids a ride to school….

REF: Friedrich von Huene “Pistosaurus, a middle Triassic plesiosaur” American Journal of Science (January 1948), 246(1):46-52

Laser Bird

2 February 2010

north american golden throated laser bird -unforgivable realness / Valin Mattheis © All rights reserved.

An innocent enough harbinger of urban destruction, the appearance of the golden throated laser bird in north america led to untold chirping catastrophe on tiny feathered wings.

Overlooked by both Audubon and Wilson,  rumor has it that William Gambel first spotted the North American Golden-Throated Laser Bird during his second overland trip to California.  Sadly, it fried his face off before he could collect a specimen.

Taxidermy tuesday: Lepus cornutus

26 January 2010

Lepus cornutus Zoologisches Museum‎, Zürich Switzerland

Body clothed in a no-cloth robe,

Feet clad in turtle’s fur boots,

I seize my bow of rabbit horn

And prepare to shoot the devil of Ignorance

Hanshan, Cold Mountain Poem 91

Jackalope are a dime a dozen out here in the American West, but I had to go to Switzerland to see a Rasselbock.  Or is it a flightless Wolpertinger?  Or maybe a Raurackl?  Hard to say, really.

Joris Hoefnagel Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia (Terra): Plate XLVII, c. 1575/1580

Permanent Ink

24 January 2010

Which reminds me…

I meant to write about this when it was news.  Now it’s olds, which suits me fine.

Copy of Pearce's restoration of Belemnotheutis, re-drawn by Colin Stuart from Donovan and Crane (1992).

I.  The drawing above is of the extinct Jurassic cephalopod Belemnotheutis antiquus. In fact, it’s a fairly exact replica of a drawing made by Joseph Chaning Pearce who first named the genus in 1842 (shown at left).  Pearce may have intended to name the fossil Belemnoteuthis (teuthis=Gr. squid as in teuthology study of cephalopods), or he may have intentionally used a variant spelling.  Either way, Donovan and Crane 1992[pdf] argue that the original published spelling should stand according to the rules of taxonomic nomenclature.  Historically, Belemnoteuthis(sic) has been widely used and Richard Cowen has described Pearce’s original spelling as “barbarism.” Nevertheless there it stands: a possible typo enshrined into taxonomic priority.

II.  Engineering icon Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was the vision behind the construction of the Great Western Railway which linked London by rail to south west England (including the Jurassic Coast) and Wales during the 1830s and 40s.  Around 1840, rail workers constructing a line near the village of Christian Malford stumbled across incredibly well preserved fossils some of which were collected and studied by Pearce.  The site was eventually flooded and forgotten for more than a century and a half before it was rediscovered by British scientists just a few years ago.

III.  Which, the focus on all those new reports about that featured this drawing wasn’t mainly on the historical quirks surrounding the image or name at all but concerned instead the historical quirks surrounding the origin of the ink which is: FREAKING BELEMNITE INK!

Ink from a well-preserved Belemnotheutis, dead for 165 million years or so, was reconstituted and used to draw a copy of one of Pearce’s original drawings.

IV.  Which is really cool, but not nearly as unique as you might expect.

Joel Segal Books Blog does a nice job of putting fossil cephalopod ink into proper historical context, borrowing an image from my sidebar, a painting of Ichthyosaurus made by Henry De la Beche in 1834 using FREAKING BELEMNITE INK!

From Clary (2003)

Credit where it’s due: I nicked the picture from the doctoral dissertation of Renee M. Clary (2003) which explores the pioneering role De la Beche played in using imaginative visual aids to convey geological and paleobiological information.  Mandatory reading for anyone interested in the history of geology, the use of illustration in the earth sciences or the development “paleoart.”

Preserved ink sacs of fossil cephalopods - from William Buckland's Geology and Mineralogy with respect to Natural Theology (1836).

In fact, De la Beche was just one of a number of 19th century scholars and artists that messed around with reconstituted fossil ink.  In his “Bridgewater Treatise” Geology and Mineralogy with respect to Natural Theology (1836) William Buckland illustrated (so far as I know, with conventional ink),  the well-preserved ink sacs from several fossil cephalopods.  In that same work, Buckland gives an account of one of the earliest artistic experiments using fossil cephalopod ink:

Elizabeth Philpot, the often forgotten friend and associate of Mary Anning who is a central character in Tracy Cevalier’s recently published novel Remarkable Creatures, is also said to have painted with “fossil sepia” and sometimes credited with being the first to do so.  Other enterprising residents of Lyme are said to have followed suit painting  in an effort to cater to the burgeoning tourist industry fueled by Victorian fossil fever and the construction of the Great Western Railway.

I’m not sure whether any of the illustrations made by Chantrey, Philpot or their followers have survived, I haven’t been able to turn any up aside from De la Beche’s ichthyosaur.  Unlike the De la Beche drawing, other vintage fossil ink works might not be clearly labeled as such and could easily be sitting in a private collection or a museum forgotten and unrecognized.  Philpot’s or Chantrey’s original works, most likely long gone, would be priceless historical gems of the finest order.

V. Fossil ink makes literary cameos in the work of Jules Verne and the poet Martin Farquhar Tupper.  It also turns up in one of my favorite essays of all time, Thomas Henry Huxley’s “On the Method of Zadig”:

“No amount of physiological reasoning could enable any one to say whether the animal which fabricated the Belemnite was more like Nautilus, or more like Spirula. But the accidental discovery of Belemnites in due connection with black elongated masses which were: certainly fossilised ink-bags, inasmuch as the ink could be ground up and used for painting as well as if it were recent sepia, settled the question; and it became perfectly safe to prophesy that the creature which fabricated the Belemnite was a two-gilled cephalopod with suckers on its arms, and with all the other essential features of our living squids, cuttle-fishes, and Spirulæ. The palæontologist was, by this time, able to speak as confidently about the animal of the Belemnite, as Zadig was respecting the queen’s spaniel. He could give a very fair description of its external appearance, and even enter pretty fully into the details of its internal organisation, and yet could declare that neither he, nor any one else, had ever seen one.”  Thomas Henry Huxley “On the Method of Zadig” (1880)

VI.  Pigments, paints, dyes and inks come either from dead organisms or minerals, and so all have some biological or geological story to tell.  The case at hand straddles both categories, which seems unique until you remember the ubiquity of “synthetic” inks distilled from petroleum that is the remnants of marine organisms, dead and buried for millions of years.  That might include some of the ink used to run the Belemnotheutis newspaper stories, unless British newspaper printers have all switched to soy-based inks like their U.S. counterparts.  Your keyboard and mouse are probably made from sea animals.  If you print this post out (which I can’t imagine why but just go with me here) the ink you use, and perhaps the energy to do it, are quite possibly the byproducts of long dead phytoplankton.

VII.  And as long as we’re talking autochthonous/authigenic art, I have to mention Matt Celeskey’s work with 200+ million year old Triassic charcoal.  Matt, in turn, turned me on to Alexis Rockman whose “field drawings” use site-specific pigments themed around of both living and fossil ecosystems ranging from the Burgess Shale and La Brea Tar Pits to Fresh Kills landfill.

VIII.  Here then for almost no reason except that I like the picture is Brunel, posed beside the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern, whom Brunel affectionately called the “Great Babe.”  The ship will experience a steam explosion, killing 5, before being repaired, sent across the Atlantic as a passenger vessel half-a-dozen times nearly sinking once before being converted to cable laying ship and laying the first Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, later converted into a floating music hall and promotional gimmick and eventually broken up and sold for scrap.  Which has nothing to do with anything.  Like I said, I just like the picture.

And if you made it this far without being tempted by at least one of those hyperlinks, I can’t help you.