Posts Tagged ‘history of science’

Faces of Death

28 April 2009

Chris Norris recently deployed the term “asteroid porn” for a certain gratuitous style employed by those writing about meteoric catastrophe:

Here is a brief summary of a typical piece of asteroid porn. Dinosaurs are peacefully grazing (or browsing, or doing whatever) on a warm sunny day (or at sunset, or some other time of peacefullness) when they see a big fireball fall out of the sky. It hits the Earth so hard that larva comes out, like a big bursting geological zit. The larva shoots up hundreds of miles into the air and comes down, setting fire to, like, the whole planet. All the forests are on fire, and all the dinosaurs are on fire as well. Then there’s this big blast wave, and it’s so big it goes round the world, like, 5 times at the speed of Concorde, and when it hits the burning dinosaurs they all get blown into burning pieces…

You’ll want to read the entire post.

Not all porn is so literate though.  Books, television, film and, most especially the internet abound with visual artworks that operate in the same vein.  One well-worn style adopts a “dinosaur-eye view,” typically peppering the foreground with a tyrannosaur, hadrosaur or ceratopsian or some combination thereof.  A few enterprising artists even manage a nod to Charles Knight.

picture-4The players in these epic finales span a comical range of emotive reaction to the impact, from “wha?” to “HOLY EFF!” to “screw extinction–I’M GOING TO EAT YOU!!!” A few contemplative dinosaurs, cast in silhouette, even appear rather philosophical about their impending demise.

And of course, it’s a nearly irresistible vehicle for a one-liner:

picture-5Large pterosaurs offer a convenient excuse to adopt an aerial perspective that permits a more graphic celebration of “the junk” (the bolide that is).  Plus there must be a sense of clever satisfaction tat comes when you work Quetzalcoatlus into a painting of Mesoamerican Armageddon.

picture-6Another popular technique takes yet another step back to show what the hypothetical Troodon cosmonauts would have seen.

This view shifts the victim role from the dinosaurs to the planet itself. It also lends a certain historical anonymity to the event–this could be a catastrophe in the distant past, or the not-so-remote future.  In fact, some even depict an anachronistic geography that necessarily implies the latter to the careful observer.

picture-8It’s tempting to speculate that this orbital perspective might not have occurred to an artist working prior to the advent of satellite photography.  A similar argument has been made regarding the link between the Victorian “aquarium craze” and the subsequent proliferation of artworks adopting an underwater perspective (Clary and Wandersee 2005).

With their melodramatic flair, stereotyped compositions and limited pool of motifs, these images might easily be regarded as derivative at best and sure, pornographic at worst.  Much like metal album art.  However, these depictions will also afford ample fodder for a future, likely poor, overeducated and underemployed, generation of science/art historians interested in the cultural impact of late 20th Century neo-catastrophism.  Unless we are all wiped out by an asteroid first.

Coming up: Stravinsky, climate change and the Bataan march

postscripto: Huh, look at that.  300 microecos posts in just over 3 years.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

A note on the images:  All are thumbnails gleaned from Google Image searches of “asteroid impact”, “dinosaur extinction” etc.  They are reproduced here for the purposes of discussion only.  This is a cultural studies blog.  Deal.

Why is a protarded boa constrictor like a writing desk, I mean, thermometer?

5 February 2009

“In a word, the form of the tooth entails the form of the condyle; the forms of the shoulder blade and the claws, just like the equation of a curve, entail all their properties. Just as in taking each property seperately as the basis for a particular equation, one would find both the ordinary equation and all the other properties of any kind, so likewise the claw, the shoulder blade, the condyle, the femur, and all the other bones taken seperately, determine the teeth, and each other reciprocally. Beginning with each of them in isolation, he who possesses rationally the laws of organic economy would be able to reconstruct the whole animal.” — Cuvier 1812, trans. Martin Rudwick.

From our irregular series - Bloggers half-assedly opining about peer-reviewed papers when, really no one asked them in the first place anyway

From our irregular series, "Bloggers half-assedly opining about peer-reviewed papers when, really no one asked them in the first place anyway."

Baron Georges Léopold Chrétien Frédéric Dagobert Cuvier was a man of strong opinion and bold statement. In the most dramatic articulation of his “Principle of the Correlation of Parts” Cuvier argued that anatomy, like God, bows to math. Given a single isolated bone, he claimed, one might be able to infer what the entire animal looked like, at least in principle. In following paragraphs Cuvier hedges his bold assertion just a bit, but this is the idea for which Cuvier is remembered, and misremembered, the most.

Creationsists love to bring this up, “scientists find a few scraps of bone and make up a dinosaur.”  Ironically, it was Cuvier’s own vision of “intelligent design” and “irreducible complexity” that informed his view. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Thomas Henry Huxley took Cuvier’s claim to task in his lecture “On Natural History, as Knowledge, Discipline, and Power” (see also Hugh Falconer’s rebuttal). In a later, and tremendously entertaining essay, “On the Method of Zadig” Huxley argues that Cuvier’s principle can be of some use, as long as it is conducted cautiously and in an explicitly evolutionary context.

These days most paleontologists would claim that they aren’t so bold as Cuvier, and that they wouldn’t seriously attempt to reconstruct an animal based upon a single bone (though they certainly might do so for a laugh). I would argue, however, that we’ve actually gone far beyond Cuvier’s wildest dreams. Correlation and exrapolation are largely the name of the game. This is how we sex the brooding theropod, draw out the fetal leviathan, and diagnose the dueling dinosaur.

The much publicized recent discovery of Titanoboa is significant not only because it’s a freaking huge-ass snake, though admittedly it is one ginormous, redonkulus, totally protarded animal. Even more amazing than the snake is what Jason Head and coauthors* do with the fossils. Given a handful of vertebrae from several individuals, they first extrapolate the body size of the animal based on the anatomical proportions found in the largest living snakes, python and anaconda. Then, and this is the really amazing part, they use the size of the snake to calculate paleo temperature based on the relationship between geographic distribution, temperature and body size among living reptiles. In fact, the authors even propose a pole to equator temperature gradient–based on the size and shape of the backbone of an extinct snake!!

If the scientists were simply saying “big snake = tropical weather,” as most news outlets are basically reporting it, that wouldn’t be very noteworthy. But this may be the first time that a fossil vertebrate has been used to calculate a numerical paleotemperature estimate. At last year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Conference I saw one of the authors, David Polly, give a pretty amazing lecture using ankle bone shape to estimate paleoenvironment and paleoclimate.

Taking the temperature of the tropics with a snake – Head et al. 2009

This kind of claim is certain to draw criticism and skepticism within the paleontological community and, probably especially, from neontologists and paleoclimatologists. That’s not neccesarily a bad thing, radical new ideas in science need to be tested. I’m certainly not totally convinced. Still, for a science as old and dusty as comparative anatomy, it’s pretty exciting to see this kind of novel and creative work. It gives me hope that there are plenty of new surprises out there still waiting to be discovered. Cuvier would be proud I think.

For more huge-ass snakes see: Snake Handlin’

* – full disclosure, I’m friends with one of the authors and have worked with him in the field.


1 April 2008

Crazy story in Science Daily today about a paper recently published in the Bulletin of the Society of Historical Integrative Tautology. The paper describes Protardosuchus incendiensis, an extinct fossil reptile whose remains were recently discovered in Holocene beach sands outside San Francisco.

The authors suggest that the strange hollow, procumbent dentition were able to expel a pair of reactive fluids which, when mixed together in the presence of atmospheric oxygen would combust. Abundant charcoal in the beach sediments which yielded the sub-fossil are seen as strong circumstantial evidence for this novel adaptation.

Some carabid beetles have developed a similar, though scaled down chemical defense mechanism while among reptiles, a number of species of cobra can spray venom from their fangs. Protardosuchus’ pyrotechnic display was apparently far more impressive. As the Science Daily piece notes, the author’s aren’t certain if this behavior was defensive or related to prey-capture:

“Seriously, dude we have no effing clue,” says Melchior Neumayr, lead researcher on the new study. “It was probably all like ‘fffshhhh’ and then all like ‘BOUSCH!’ And then, then you’re like totally toast brohan. No thanks man, thanks, but no thanks.”

Most interestingly, this discovery marks the first post-Cretaceous occurrence of a hellasaurid hellasauroid hellasauriform in North America (while most authorities consider “Ogopogo” to be a “hellasaur” sensu lato, it’s almost certainly not a true hellasauroid). It’s tempting to imagine that the mythical “dragons” of Eurasian folklore were inspired by extinct old-world protardosuchians whose remains have yet to be discovered. In fact this pan-Pacific distribution would almost certainly confirm McCarthy’s (2003) argument that the Pacific basin didn’t open until the Mesozoic. Dude, seriously.

An artist’s reconstruction of Protardosuchus.
Dennis McCarthy (2003) “The trans-Pacific zipper effect: disjunct sister taxa and matching geological outlines that link the Pacific margins” Journal of Biogeography 30 (10)
Neumayr, M et al. (2008) “Expirational autocombustion in a recently extinct Hellasaur from coastal California” Bull. Soc. Hist. Int. Taut. 56 (9 or 10)

Afrotheres of the World Unite!

7 February 2008


The recent description of a new species of sengi, Rynchocyon udzungwensis, inspired me to finally complete a project I’ve been talking about for years. Behold: the official Afrotheria logo–soon to be seen on a bumper-sticker or t-shirt near you!

(Note: while the new sengi is freaking huge, tipping the scales at 700g, the animals in the logo are, um, not to scale).

“Gondwanaism and Afrothereists” is the name of a chapter in my book Paleontology After Modernism which will almost certainly never be written.

I ultimately decided not to include the extinct Afrothere lineages Desmostylians and Embrithopods, despite the fact that they are some of my favorite mammals, because I was afraid it would look too crowded, plus my lab-mates were starting to ask questions.

Anyone who can name all seven taxa pictured will win a free t-shirt, once I get around to printing them…

Props to Seth Newsome for the inspiration.

Now I guess I had better get to designing logos for Xenarthra, Laurasiatheria and Euarchontoglires.

Come Again?

20 December 2007

Yes, apparently.

Wave Bye-Bye to the Polymath…

17 December 2007

Well, calling Charles Willson Peale a polymath may be rather generous. Then again, if I had run a failed saddle shop, painted some bossy white dudes, and created the first American Natural History Museum, I think I’d probably feel pretty worthy of the title. Anyway, when was the last time you went to a glass harmonica concert or whatever? [well, knowing microecos readers, it was probably last weekend]

At any rate, before we tossed his geriatric remains from the bell jar, I figured it was worth giving the bloke a proper post. Exhumation of the Mastadon [sic] (1806) (pictured above) remains probably the best American painting to date, though some of Richard Estes’ stuff comes close. That is, of course, ol’ Pealey himself in the jacket and slacks. Much, much more Peale info here.

microecos is a rotting peaty wreck.

Who Is Buried in Lincoln’s Tomb?

5 December 2007


On February 12th, 1809, two visionaries emerged on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Both were cautious, erudite, soft-spoken men who were destined to transform the world in their own way.

In a letter to Asa Gray Darwin, a self-proclaimed supporter of the Union endorsed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation:

Well, your President has issued his fiat against Slavery—God grant it may have some effect.

I don’t know if Lincoln ever picked up the Origin.

I suppose he was rather busy in the sixties. He is reported to have read (and enjoyed) Robert Chambers’ Vestiges. While this proto-evolutionary text was widely derided by the scientific community (including Darwin himself), it did mark a sincere effort to develop a rational history of life that accorded with the fossil record.

Growing up in Kentucky, it’s almost impossible that a young Abe didn’t encounter some of the abundant Paleozoic fossils that litter the state. And, in keeping with my previous rant about our fossilferous infrastructure, the stone which surrounds Lincoln’s tomb is packed with coral and brachiopod fossils.

tabulate.jpg tomb.jpg


Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Lincoln’s most famous address, delivered amongst fields tilled with fallen soldiers, begins with a declaration of historical context. History helps us to make sense of chaos and savagery of modern life. This is also where Karl Marx and L. R. Hubbard fit in.


But aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln how was the play?