Friday, August 7, 2009

The Occasional Fossil

Fossil Wasp (NOT to scale!) from Eocene lake beds at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. (photo by Bud Wobus).

Very dang cool. Link goes to the original photo.

Very Good Book

Dave Raup, an excellent paleontologist has written a very good book on extinction that does a good job of dealing with some of these counting issues. It's called "Extinction Bad Genes or Bad Luck. " The link takes you to Amazon. I can't seem to find my copy so I'll be ordering another one.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Anciennt Versus Modern Extinction Pt 3

The word extinction means we have fewer plants and animals than we did before. So we're going to need to count things. But what are we counting? Species? Here's a dirty little secret: Paleontologists don't really have a good species concept. Biologists have a pretty good one.
The biological species concept defines a species as members of populations that actually or potentially interbreed in nature, not according to similarity of appearance.
To that we probably need to add that the offspring can, themselves, reproduce but you get the idea. Here's the problem.... "similarity of appearance" is really all we have in Paleontology. You take two fossils, put then on a water bed, give them some privacy and cue the Barry White. Come back a month later and there are still just going to be two fossils there. FOSSILS DON'T REPRODUCE. In fact we can't be really sure those two fossils were the opposite sex. (not that there's anything WRONG with same sex fossils) . So what do we do about the species concept in paleontology?... basically we muddle through as best we can mainly relying on appearance.
The diversity curve we've been looking at is a family level curve not a species level curve. For those of you who are taxonomically challenged remember that species' group into genera and genera group into families. Not all families have the same number of species. A family of insects may have hundreds of species. The family we belong to, Hominidae contains us, gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. So taking out a family of insects takes out a whole lot more species than taking out a family of primates.
So you've got a bunch of biologists out there defining extinction by counting species and you've got paleontologists counting what are basically morphoptypes. And really most of our work on broad patterns in extinction and radiation is done two taxomic levels up. Comparing those is gong to be very very tricky.
Next up: Taphonomy. Because if you don't understand that you don't understand anything.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Getting ready for some content

So I was sitting around musing about my lack of blogging. I've honestly never been able to get over the the "who really cares about what I have to say"hump. But I was feeling a bit guilty for the people who do read.. coming to the blog.. no new content... over and over... but then I realized wait a sec.... no one goes to blogs any more it's all about the RSS so here I am in your RSS feed... taking up space.
The point of this really though (you knew there had to be a real point somewhere didn't you) is that I'm about to post up another entry on modern versus ancient extinction and RSS feeds don't usually show past posts. So if you care, go back and read the first two again so you know what the heck I'm talking about. I know I'm going to have to.
The first is here
the second is here

And just random bit. If you're not reading Isis the scientist you should be.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

So very wrong

I was over at the wired science blog (which is very good by the way) when I ran across this in the comments on one of the posts.

There is no big surprise here. What most people consider “Science” is often glorified Voodoo Artistry. Even the “hard sciences” like Physics and Math have plenty of unsolved mysteries. The soft sciences (Biology) have plenty too. Stuff like Oceanography and Meteorology (silly science) are almost totally librarian, i.e. they are really detailed observations without much of what Scientists consider “science”, that is, they have almost no predictive power.

It should surprise very few hard thinking people that much of what mass media considers “science” is often lame. How is it that so many “smart people” have bought into the Global Climate Crisis when our “weather scientists” can hardly predict (accurately) the weather a few weeks out. And, “they” expect us to believe that 20 years out we will be subject to catastrophic climate change.

Here’s the deal : lots of people who study “science” want to be considered “scientists” so they can feel good about their work. Maybe we should consider a stronger definition of what we can call science. If your body of work cannot accurately predict 99% of it’s claims, it cannot be considered science. If your work has no definable experimental framework, it is not science. If your work opens more questions than it answers, it is not science.

... and no reading the original post doesn't really help. The original post is here and was on some anomalously high tides they've been having on the east coast. It would be difficult to fit more misconceptions about science into such a short space. I addressed some of the problems in a response in the comments. But it seems a shame to keep it buried in some comments so here it is.

Ok, I really don’t have the time or inclination to address what you have written in any detail, and I rather suspect it wouldn’t matter just because your mind seems to be made up no matter what the facts are. But for the benefit of anyone reading who might actually think you know what you’re talking about let’s cover some things. (and yes I did this very quickly and I’m sure there are typos… sorry)

”How is it that so many “smart people” have bought into the Global Climate Crisis when our “weather scientists” can hardly predict (accurately) the weather a few weeks out. And, “they” expect us to believe that 20 years out we will be subject to catastrophic climate change.”

Weather versus climate, they’re not the same go learn the difference

“lots of people who study “science” want to be considered “scientists” so they can feel good about their work.”

While, unlike you, I cannot speak for “lots of people who study “science”” I can speak for myself and a few of my colleagues. I can honestly say that how we feel about our work has nothing to do with what you or anyone else calls us.

“If your body of work cannot accurately predict 99% of it’s claims, it cannot be considered science. “

Did you read that sentence after you wrote it? How do you predict a claim? I’m Paleontologist. If I claim that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs how then, do I predict it? I might predict we’ll find a crater but if we don’t am I wrong or have we just not found it yet?

But let’s back off of the semantics and look at the broader point. You seem to be claiming that science should be predictive. To some degree it should be, but 99%? The hallmark of science it not that it’s predictive, it’s that scientific ideas are tested. This means that sometimes we get stuff wrong. When that happens we get rid of what doesn’t work and, hopefully, replace it with what does, then that idea is tested etc etc. What this means in the cumulative sense is that we get better at stuff. By your definition if, right off the bat, if we can’t make predictions with 99% accuracy then, apparently, we’re not doing science. If I desperately cared whether of not you were calling me a scientist then the solution would be to simply gather data until I could predict things with 99% accuracy. Two problems: First predictions are very useful at well below your 99% benchmark. Hurricane track predictions are nowhere near 99% accurate (depending on how you define accuracy) but they’re still very useful. If we wait to be 99% accurate we’ll be waiting a very long time. And in the case of hurricane track predictions people will be dying while we wait for that 99%. Second, we actually learn a lot by predicting stuff and being wrong, that’s how we test our ideas. If we never predicted something and were wrong how would we know whether or not our ideas were correct? Learning what doesn’t work is sometimes as valuable as learning what does.

“If your work has no definable experimental framework, it is not science.”

Why? I’m a paleontologist. I do some experimentation but most of my data are collected in the field. Why are data collected through observation in the field less valid than data collected through experimentation?

“If your work opens more questions than it answers, it is not science.”

Once again: why? So if your answer to one question leads to more, of it your work shows is that we really don’t understand something as well as we thought we did then it’s not science? Once again if we’re unwilling to take on what we think we know then how will we ever know if what we think we know is wrong?

Update: He responded in the comments. Go read if you want it's.... interesting?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Modern Versus Ancient Extinction pt 2

Rock Volume

Ok let's think a little more about Jack's curve.

Remember we're counting fossils here. The number of fossils you have is going to depend on the amount of rock that you have. The younger the rock, the more of it there is. So there is a lot more Tertiary (the "T" on the graph) rock out there than say Cambrian (the "C" with a line through it) so there are more Tertiary fossils than Cambrian fossils. You can compensate for this but it's always going to be very tricky. So that huge run up of in diversity that you see at the end of Jack's curve might not be "real" just because we have so much more rock for those more recent time periods. So the general shape of the curve is a little suspect. With respect to extinction, I'm not saying that extinction events in the paleontoloogical record are simply a result of not having rock for those time periods, but certainly the volume of rock is going to affect how severe we view the extinction as being.
Next time: taphonomy and counting issues

Monday, June 8, 2009

Modern Versus Ancient Extinction pt 1

I've been meaning to get to this for a while. It hits on something that comes up from time to time in Paleontology. Writing in the New Yorker Elizabeth Colbert says:
The fifth, the end-Cretaceous event, which occurred sixty-five million years ago, exterminated not just the dinosaurs but seventy-five per cent of all species on earth. Once a mass extinction occurs, it takes millions of years for life to recover, and when it does it’s generally with a new cast of characters. In this way, mass extinctions have played a determining role in evolution’s course. It’s now generally agreed among biologists that another mass extinction is under way.
What these biologists are doing is jumping from ancient extinction events to a modern "extinction". This is much trickier than most people think so lets look at it. Let's begin, as Anton Ego would say, with some


This is Jack Sepkoski's Family diversity curve with all five of the major extinctions numbered. Jack generated this curve by going into the literature and tabulating the number of taxonomic families through time. Paleontologists spend a great deal of time pouring over curves like this one so we can understand the broad sweep of life's evolution. We also spend a great deal of time looking at extinction events in great detail. So with that sort of perspective it is certainly fair to ask what can paleontologists or the paleontological record tell us about the current biological crisis.
The answer.... not much.
Why next time.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Fallen

A Google Earth layer that maps the home of all the military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. 5,679 to date. Download it here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good News Bad News

It looks like there is a fairly quick solution to global warming. The bad news is in involves India and Pakistan nuking each other.

Apparently even a limited nuclear exchange would have dire climatic consequences. A large one would be catastrophic.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Italian Earthquake

I spent some time yesterday trying to sort out the tectonics of the Mediterranean for a blog post on the Italian earthquake. What the I learned is that the tectonics of the Med are very complicated.
Highly Allochthonous does and excellent job with it though,
and Here's the official USGS account.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Few and Proud

Today in 1985 (don't you DARE do the math) I graduated Marine boot camp at Paris Island South Carolina. I have pictures but no scanner right now so you'll have to wait till next year to see em.

New time scale... now in COLOR

Geologists use a variety of techniques to divide the Earth's history up into manageable units The boundaries between these units mark large changes to the Earth or the Earth's biosphere: extinction, faunal turnover etc. The "official" (this whole process is remarkably unofficial) time scale for North America is put out by the Geological Society of America and is called the DNAG scale (Decade of North American Geology). As we get more and more refined radiometric dates and as old tems exit and new terms enter (like I said: remarkably unofficial) the scale needs to be updated. So here's the new one: know it, learn it, live it, love it. (or just click on it to go to the GSA web site and print it. )

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ok Maybe Not

In the last post I mentioned trace fossils. I looked back to link to the post on trace fossils versus body fossils only to find there isn't one. So: Body fossils are the kinds of fossils that most people think of when the think of a fossil. The remains of the organism. Trace fossils are the remains of the ACTIVITY of an organism. So this footprint. Trace fossil

The dinosaur bone. Body fossil.

Trace fossils are very useful. Every organism (with the sort of exception of things that molt) have the potential to leave exactly one complete body fossil. And usually you find scattered stuff like the bone above. But an organism could leave thousands of trace fossils, so they are very common. Trace fossils are given generic and specific names but do not form higher order linean groups (families, kingdoms etc...). The foot print above belongs to the ichnogenus (ichno- is a prefix for trace fossil) Acrocanthosaurus.

The Occasional fossil

This is not one fossil but a whole bunch. Back when this rock was sediment there were all sorts of organisms living in it. As they burrowed through the sediment they made tunnels which, themselves, filled with sediment. When the sediment turned to rock the fluid carry the cementing agent was able to penetrate the relatively un packed filled in tunnel better than the surrounding sediment so as the rock weathers and erodes the tunnels "stick out". Remember from an earlier post these are trace fossils.

Pompous Gasbag Alert

Psychology Professor David Barash writing for the Chronicle of Higher Ed says about spectator sports.

Not that I would try to stop anyone from root, root, rooting to his or her heart's content. It's just that such things are normally done by pigs, in the mud, or by seedlings, lacking a firm grip on reality — fine for them, but I am not at all sure this is something that human beings should do. In desperation, if threatened with starvation, I suppose that I would root — for dinner. But for the home team? Never.

And it just goes on from there .. and on .. and on .. and on.. Look I get it, and having attended two big football school, I will admit to being way past miffed when the entire campus gives itself over to football in the fall. But rather than conceding that it's not for him Barash goes on to make a (weak) case that enjoyment of spectator sports is a reflection on everything from one's intelligence to one's mother's parentage (ok the last bit is sarcasm but you get the idea).

I don't have the time or desire to take the whole thing apart but let me just make a couple points.

  • Athletes are talented people doing dramatic things . I enjoy watching talented people doing dramatic things
  • What else would you have us do? I enjoy participating in and talking science, music, literature and philosophy as much as (probably more than) the next guy but sometimes it's fun to just go watch some sports. I like to think of that as balance. Not that people who don't do spectator sports aren't balanced it's just my balance. But apparenly the good DrBarash disapproves
ok now for disclosure
Footbal: yes sometimes
Baseball: not so much
Basketball: a little but not so much since Larry Bird retired
Golf: naw
NASCAR: used to but then realized that it really is just a bunch or rednecks turning left. And they don't run in the rain??? wimps
Tennis: Archaeogrrrl is a huge fan so so am I
Hockey: Not even a little
Cycling: oh HELL yes.

ps Archaeogrrrl has some theories about locker room trauma early in Dr Barashs's life but we won't go there.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Crafting it forward

Via profgrrrl.
I really doubt I'll get 5 comments (that would be a record for this blog) but in the spirit of getting things rolling:
The first 5 people to comment will get something made by me or my wife. I'm not all that crafty but she is. I like profgrrrl's restrictions so here they are.
  • you may or may not like what we make you
  • it might take a few months
  • exactly what we make will be a surprise
It could be food or craft or any number of things that I or archaeogrrrl make.
Usually in order to participate in these things you need to have a blog of your own to carry this on. That might me asking a bit much here so I'm gonna throw it open to anyone.

Happy Vernal Equinox

I suppose I could blog once every three months but that does seem to sort of defeat the purpose.