How to make a dinosaur: Start with a chicken . . .

July 25, 2011

Dinosaur hunter extraordinaire Jack Horner explained to an audience at TEDS that he always wanted a pet dinosaur . . .

(From a talk recorded March 4 2011.)

Jack Horner may look familiar to you.  Or you may not recognize him without the cowboy hat.  Horner is famous enough in dinosaurphile circles that a character who looked like Horner, down to the red shirt and cowboy hat, was included in the Jurassic Park movies.

This is, in loose form, real science.  It’s the sort of stuff that somehow gets squeezed out of science curricula in middle schools and high schools.  What student will not find it interesting to talk about why we can’t clone dinosaurs from mosquitoes trapped in amber, but how we can regress a chicken to bring out atavistic traits?

Such material may cause apoplexy among some cliques at the Texas State Board of Education — because this reinforces evolution ideas.  Horner says, “We can fix the chicken — because evolution works.”

Science teachers:  Can you find some way to shoehorn this stuff back into your classes?


Big bone sale in Dallas

June 11, 2011

Big bones.  Big sale.

Heritage Auction's triceratops, for Jun 12, 2011 auction

Triceratops welcomes bidders and gawkers to the Heritage Auction sale of fossils, gems, meteorites, and other national history ephemera. HA estimates this nearly-complete triceratops, mounted, to be worth about $700,000; less than 24 hours before the live auction, it has an online bid of $500,000 already.

Heritage Auctions set up a bug bunch of fossils, gems, meteorites, taxidermy, and art work from natural materials, for an auction on Sunday, June 12, 2011.

2011 June Dallas Signature Platinum Natural History Auction – Dallas, TX.  Auction #6061.

I can’t afford to bid, but they let me in to get photos.  Nice people.

Heritage Auctions' June special, a triceratops - IMGP6882 photo by Ed Darrell; use permitted with attribution

Heritage Auctions' June special, a triceratops - photo by Ed Darrell; use permitted with attribution

The triceratops greets visitors and bidders at the display site, the Tower Building at Dallas’s art deco gem, Fair Park.  (If you look at the ceiling above the triceratops, you can see where restorers have stripped away several layers of paint to reveal the original ceiling paintings — original artwork, including murals, was painted over in the years following the dramatic debut of the buildings; restoration work proceeds slowly because of lack of funding.)

Triceratops horridus
Cretaceous
Hell Creek formation, Harding County, South Dakota

Researchers dug this particular specimen out of the ground in 2004.  HA’s description just makes one’s science juices flow:

Triceratops has enjoyed much cultural publicity ever since its discovery. It is an iconic dinosaur that has appeared in movies ranging from black and white cinema to modern movies like “Jurassic Park.” It has also been in cartoons, such as the children’s classic “The Land before Time.” Triceratops is also the official state fossil of South Dakota and the official state dinosaur of Wyoming.

The present specimen was discovered in 2004 in two parts: First, the fossil hunters came upon pieces of dinosaur bone eroding down a gully. Following these bone fragments, they eventually came upon large bones that would indicate the presence of a large Ceratopsian dinosaur. While this large mass of bones was being excavated, other members of the team followed another bone trail which led them to an amazingly well preserved skull 750 feet away from the original discovery. Over the course of months, the specimens were carefully excavated in large blocks; each specimen was covered in plaster jackets and removed from the field to the lab. It was only during preparation that they discovered the dinosaur was a Triceratops, and it happened to be a Triceratops with an incredibly complete skull. The bones and skull were carefully removed from their field jackets and prepared using hand tools. Broken bones were professionally repaired and restored while a few missing elements were cast from other Triceratops skeletons. A custom made mount was created to support the bones and the skull; innovative bracket mounts were crafted for each bone so that no bones had to be damaged in order to mount them. The bones were mounted in osteologically correct position; making it comparable to and possibly surpassing the accuracy of older mounts in museum displays. Though it is impossible to say whether or not the skull is original to the specimen, being discovered 750 feet apart, it is certainly possible that the two elements are associated for a number of reasons: first, the size of the skull is consistent with the proportional size dimensions of the skeleton, and second, the surrounding matrix (host rock) was identical in composition.

The completed skeleton is enormous; measuring 19 feet long from head to tail, 11 feet across, and towering 12 feet tall. The skull itself measures 7 feet long with 3 ½ foot long horns; placing it near the top of the size range for Triceratops skulls. The leg bones stand 10 feet tall from toes to the top of the scapula; dwarfing many other Triceratops skeletons. Given that the skull represents about 30% of a dinosaur’s entire skeleton, the present specimen is about 75% original bone, with the right leg, pelvic region, several cervical vertebrae and a few tail vertebrae being cast reproductions.

Who owns the thing?  Who put it together?   Who is losing the specimen, should it go to a private collection (you got a living room that big?), and which museum really wants it?

But that’s just one of the specimens up for sale at this auction, and not necessarily the best.  Also up for bid:  A stegosaurus, and an allosaurus, posed as a “fighting pair.”

Fighting pair - allosaurus and stegosaurus, from Heritage Auctions' June 12, 2011 sale of fossils IMGP6839 - photo copyright by Ed Darrell, use permitted with attribution

The "fighting pair," an allosaurus (left) and stegosaurus (right) posed in combat positions. Photo by Ed Darrell, use permitted with attribution.

If it sells, the stegosaurus will cost a lucky bidder more than $1 million.  The allosaurus requires $1.6 million.

Am I jaded?  On the one hand you can’t look at these specimens without thinking they deserve to be seen by kids, and adults, and studied by paleontologists and biologist of all stripes — and so who has the right to sell these off?  On the other hand, this is a Second Gilded Age, and the search for prize fossil specimens is often financed by the proceeds from these auctions.  I enjoyed an hour’s browsing and photographing — a slide presentation on the wonders of America for some sleepy class next fall.

How many of these specimens will I get a chance to see again in the future?

Or, Dear Reader, how many of these will you ever get a chance to see?

HA will sell a lot more than just a few dinosaur fossils.  This same sale includes the largest shark jawbone ever found, stuffed Kodiak and polar bears (from the same hunter), gems, art from petrified wood and fossilized fish, and a large selection of meteorites, including the only meteoroid ever confirmed to have struck and killed a living creature (a cow in Argentine; you can’t toss a stone without hitting a cow in Argentina, I hear).

Giant shark jaw for Heritage Auctions' June 2011 sale

Requires a large wall and high ceilings to display

I don’t plan to go bid; there’s about an hour remaining for online bidding tonight, but if you’re interested and you’ve got your income tax refund burning a hole in your pocket, you can also bid by telephone and hotlink on the internet (go to the Heritage Auction site for details).   Frankly, I don’t think the sale will get the attention it deserves.  I hope these spectacular specimens will land where they can get  a great, admiring and studious audience.


Debunking creationist claims of human and dinosaur footprints together . . .

September 26, 2010

. . . from 1983!

Steve Schafersman, now president of Texas Citizens for Science, played the yeoman then:

Description of the program:

Did humans coexist with dinosaurs? The tracks tell the tale. Dr. John R. Cole, Dr. Steven Schafersman, Dr. Laurie Godfrey, Dr. Ronnie Hastings, Lee Mansfield, and other scientists examine the claims and the evidence. Air date: 1983.

Tip of the old scrub brush to the National Center for Science Education.


Four Stone Hearth #64 at Quiche Moraine

April 12, 2009

Do you have to know geology to get the title of that blog?

Four Stone Hearth 64 is hosted by Quiche Moraine.  Lots of good stuff.  F’rinstance:

With a few hours, an ambitious teacher could get 20 or 30 good bell-ringers out of FSH.  Bell ringers based on real research — what a concept.

A modern version of an ancient hearth - State Cooking Pot of Utah, the Dutch oven - photo by Jason Slemons

A modern version of an ancient hearth - State Cooking Pot of Utah, the Dutch oven - photo by Jason Slemons


Teacher workshops at the Texas Natural Science Center – Earth science, paleontology

April 7, 2009

Hurry, teachers, get your workshops before the State Board of Education declares science workshops to be illegal:

FREE upcoming teacher training workshops at the Texas Natural Science Center — sign up now!
Change Over Time workshop — 2 sessions (1 for elementary; 1 for middle school) on Saturday, May 2, 2009.
Enjoy inquiry-based, hands-on activities using the Change Over Time kit containing TEKS-based geological science instructional materials for grades K-8!  This workshop is designed to help students master Earth Science concepts tested on the TAKS (Grade 5 and/or Grade 8). Conducted in conjunction with Sargent-Welch, Science Kit, and Ward’s.  For information and registration, visit http://www.utexas.edu/tmm/education/profdev/cot/index.html

Texas: Past, Present and Future — 4 one-day workshops: June 30, July 14, July 22, and July 30.
Learn more about geology, paleontology and Texas biodiversity!  Participating teachers will explore how animals are adapted to varying environments, investigate how paleontologists use fundamental principles to recreate what life was like in Texas’ past, and learn how to integrate these concepts into the classroom. Workshop participants will receive curriculum guides and be able to check out a Texas Fish and Mammals Loaner Kit for use in their classrooms. For information and registration, visit http://www.utexas.edu/tmm/education/profdev/txppf/index.html


Four Stone Hearth #63: Bathing in the warm waters of ancient knowledge

March 25, 2009

Welcome to the 63rd edition of Four Stone Hearth (4SH), the only blog carnival on the planet dedicated entirely to the four stone foundations of modern anthropology. We’re happy to invite readers in for a soak at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.

It’s spring, and in spring a young anthropologist’s fancy turns to thoughts of . . . grading papers, maybe love, getting ready to dig over the summer, finishing up the term, love, getting the snow tires off the car, the Texas State Board of Education, if not love then maybe a good dinner companion, finishing the paper up for publication (where?), how to finance next semester, how to stretch the grant, love in the future, where to get the next grant . . . almost everything but submitting entries to that history and social studies guy at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.

Need some cowboy coffee?

Need some cowboy coffee?

Interesting entries this edition, but in onesies and twosies, not by dozens.  Trusting that the enterprise is blessed by the patron saints (St. Damasus I, or St. Helen, for archaeologists; is there a patron saint for anthropology or linguistics? In a pinch we can just invoke St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers and authors), we push on.

The Four Stone Hearth name pays homage to four areas of anthro:  Archaeology, socio-cultural anthropology, bio-physical anthropology and linguistic anthropology.  Shorter form: What humans did, and a bit of what we do.

So, grab a cup of cowboy coffee (the favorite of diggers and backpackers, and sheep herders).  In no particular order, and in no particular theme, here’s what caught our fancies over the past couple of weeks:

Globalization — love it or hate it — how does it really affect us? The Spitoon comments on newly-published research that reveals people are choosing mates from farther abroad than before. At least, that’s what our genes show.  People don’t marry people from their own village so much.  Unanswered:  How does this affect human evolution?

Digital Archaeology: Colleen Morgan at Middle Savagery, demonstrates the clash between the earthen and the electronic — she spoke on a panel at SXSW (“South By Southwest”), the massive, hip music conference and riot in Austin, Texas.  Topic:  The Real Technology of Indiana Jones.  It starts out with a promising description:  “Archaeologists no longer rely on whips and fedoras . . .”  The panel also featured Bernard Frischer of the University of Virginia, and Adam Rabinowitz, University of Texas at Austin.  “Notes and tweets” from the panel.

Cover to Goldschmidts book, The Bridge to Humanity, Oxford Press

Cover to Goldschmidt's book, The Bridge to Humanity, Oxford Press

Does morality have any connection to evolution — Appropriate for the opening day of hearings and voting on Texas public school science standards, Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology looks at the evolution of altruism, with a review and commentary on Walter Goldschmidt’s book, The Bridge to Humanity. Goldschmidt notes that selfish genes don’t explain everything, and that there’s probably a good function to a baby’s being very cute.  (Goldschmidt must hang out at our PTA meetings:  “It’s a good thing the kid’s so cute, or he’d have been dead long ago.”)  “Affect hunger” is not a common phrase in daily conversations, and it deserves a solid explanation.  Altruism cannot form naturally, many education officials in Texas believe, and so they oppose teaching evolution in public schools.  They’ll be too busy to read this article before they vote on Friday — but they should read it, and maybe the book, too.

Martin Rundkvist at Aardvarchaeology offers a lighter but critical note, on putting ice cream sticks in museums. Archaeological museum weirdness.  What should a museum be?  In the past 14 months I’ve had the pleasure of spending time (on someone else’s dime!) at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, and at the greatly expanded museum and visitor center at Mount Vernon, Virginia, George Washington’s estate.  In these places there is a concerted effort to make museums more informative, more inviting, and more focused on education missions.  Both museums feature multimedia presentations designed to kick off anyone’s visit with a punch, holographic images in Springfield, and theater seats that kick and get snowed on at Mount Vernon.

Tuamatuan Conception of the Cosmos, by Paiore. Inspiration for Margaret Meads fieldwork in American Samoa.  Running After Antelope

Tuamatuan Conception of the Cosmos, by Paiore. Inspiration for Margaret Mead's fieldwork in American Samoa. Running After Antelope

RafRaf Girls notes that someone is collecting images used to illustrate anthropology, linguistics and social theory.  It’s a form of on-line museum, and Martin’s concerns are well directed:  How much of this stuff should be preserved, especially if the preservation perpetuates odd ideas or misinformation?  Browse the images, see for yourself.  Nice to know it’s there, if you need it.   (Is all this stuff from Running After Antelope?)

Again at Neuroanthropology, Daniel Lende offers what a reader in comments calls “the best damn article on alcoholism” in “The Insidious, Elusive Becoming:  Addiction in Four Steps.” I thought it ironic that the post is illustrated with a diagram showing how to tie the famous knot, the bowline, in four steps.  Every Girl Scout and Boy Scout knows the bowline is the “lifesaving knot,” a knot that is used to tie loops used to hoist people from danger.  The bowline will not slip, and so will not suffocate the victim upon lifting.  Addiction is no bowline.  Falling into addiction involves four steps Lende outlines, basing the title on a line from Caroline Knapp’s Drinking:  A Love Story.

But we do know much more about the process of becoming than we used to. Here I will outline four important factors that shape the terrible becoming – vulnerability, training, intention, and meaning. My focus will be on understanding the subjective transformations, and I will use Knapp’s own words and experiences to help us grasp how this happens. In a forthcoming post, I will address a core biological process—competitive plasticity—that acts as the complement to this description, a process that has also helped me see the interactions in new light.

A Primate of Modern Aspect (formerly Zinjanthropus?) offers what I thought to be a fascinating story about studying the inner ears of fossilized primates, “Navigating the Bony Labyrinth.” It’s a continued exercise in pulling paleontology out of the usually-imagined realm of dusty reconstructions in badly-lighted corners of musty museums.

Fossil primates can pose some especially interesting questions to a paleoprimatologist.  Because they live in trees, many different kinds of locomotion are possible.  We can look at limb proportions to see if the little guys were clinging to vertical supports and then leaping from them, or perhaps walking on top of thick, horizontal branches, or maybe even swinging below these brances.   We can look at the shape of the scapula to see whether the animal kept its arms underneath itself or used them to reach out to the side or above itself.  We can look at the fingers to see if they were grasping branches or balancing above them.  In species known only from cranial bones, we can also look at the ear bones to see how these guys positioned themselves while in the trees.

It’s spring, I know, and we are hopeful.  Politics and war push on, however, and they push into the fields of science we love. Some things we would like to confine to dusty corners of musty museums, like war.

Afarensis notes that the coup d’etat in Madagascar threatens lemurs in the forests of the island.

It’s on the fringes of blogging, but well worth knowing about:  San Diego City Beat tells a story of guerrilla archaeology, beating the construction of the border fence between the U.S. and Mexico to get a dig done, “Hush hush archaeology.”

It’s spring, and students in American schools look forward (ha!) to the standardized tests they must take under the New Regime.  I was interested to see Kris Hirst has started a weekly quiz, this week about bog bodies – just the sort of stuff I need for my classroom to take out the tension and get kids to think.  Now, if only it were on PowerPoint, or in a form I could just print off to open a class . . .

Wish us luck here in Texas this week.  Science standards, especially evolution studies, are on the grill before the State Board of Education, where creationists hold sway. If  you know someone in Texas, you may want to persuade them to call their representative on the state board.  No scientist is an island, as John Donne would have said had he thought a bit longer about it.  How Texas goes will affect us all.

Four Stone Hearth #64 returns to the hands of people who know a bit about the topic, at Quiche Moraine.

Thanks for reading.  Remember to send your nominations for the next edition to Quiche Moraine, or to Martin.

Friends of Four Stone Hearth, sites that link to this edition (if you’ve linked and I missed it, please note it in the comments):


Dallas shows off dinosaurs on ice

October 7, 2008

Viewers of NOVA tonight get to see some of the pride of Dallas on display.  “Arctic Dinosaurs” documents the work of a paleontologist from the Dallas Museum of Nature and Science digging dinosaurs in or near the Arctic Circle.

NOVA takes viewers on an exciting Arctic trek as one team of paleontologists attempts a radical “dig” in northern Alaska, using explosives to bore a 60-foot tunnel into the permafrost in search of fossil bones. Both the scientists and the filmmakers face many challenges while on location, including plummeting temperatures and eroding cliffs prone to sudden collapse. Meanwhile, a second team of scientists works high atop a treacherous cliff to unearth a massive skull, all the while battling time, temperature, and voracious mosquitoes.

The hardy scientists shadowed in “Arctic Dinosaurs” persevere because they are driven by a compelling riddle: How did dinosaurs—long believed to be cold-blooded animals—endure the bleak polar environment and navigate in near-total darkness during the long winter months? Did they migrate over hundreds of miles of rough terrain like modern-day herds of caribou in search of food? Or did they enter a dormant state of hibernation, like bears? Could they have been warm-blooded, like birds and mammals? Top researchers from Texas, Australia, and the United Kingdom converge on the freezing tundra to unearth some startling new answers.

Tony Fiorillo, curator of earth sciences at the Dallas museum, is one of the scientists featured in the NOVA production.  The film highlights the museum’s efforts to push science work as well as displays for the public.

Previously, the museum had relied on Texas volunteers to help unearth and mount displays on prehistoric creatures from Texas, under the direction of Charles Finsley, a venerable Texas geologist.  One one hand, it’s good to see the level of science kicked up a notch or two.  On the other hand, it was great to have such a high level outlet for amateur and future, volunteer scientists at a major  museum.

In any case, the PBS program demonstrates that science goes on in Texas despite foolish creationist eruptions from the State Board of Education.  Every piece of accurate information helps eclipse the anti-science leanings of education officials.

Resources:

_______________________________

Update:  Wonderful program.  There’s a lot of good science, and a good deal of geography in the program.  Geography teachers may want to think about using this as supplement to anything dealing with Alaska, or the Arctic.


Fred Flintstone waded here: Hoaxsters ready to teach creationism to Texas kids

August 5, 2008

Creationists in Texas claim to have found a stone with footprints of a human and a dinosaur.

No, I’m not kidding.

Hoax dinosaur and human foot prints, claimed to be found near Glen Rose, Texas

Could you make this stuff up? Well, yeah, I guess some people think you could. Somebody did make this stuff up.

According to a report in the too-gullible Mineral Wells Index, long-time hoaxster and faux doctorate Carl Baugh’s Creation Evidence Museum announced the rock was found just outside Dinosaur Valley State Park. The area has been the site of more than one creationist hoax since 1960, and was an area rife with hoax dinosaur prints dating back to the 1930s. (See these notes on the warning signs of science hoaxes and history hoaxes.)

The estimated 140-pound stone was recovered in July 2000 from the bank of a creek that feeds the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas, located about 53 miles south of Fort Worth. The find was made just outside Dinosaur Valley State Park, a popular destination for tourists known for its well-preserved dinosaur tracks and other fossils.

The limestone contains two distinct prints – one of a human footprint and one belonging to a dinosaur. The significance of the cement-hard fossil is that it shows the dinosaur print partially over and intersecting the human print.

In other words, the stone’s impressions indicate that the human stepped first, the dinosaur second. If proven genuine, the artifact would provide evidence that man and dinosaur roamed the Earth at the same time, according to those associated with the find and with its safekeeping. It could potentially toss out the window many commonly held scientific theories on evolution and the history of the world.

Except, as you can see, Dear Reader and Viewer, it’s a hoax. No dinosaur has a footprint exactly resembling the print of Fred Flintstone’s pet Dino, as the rock shows; nor do human footprints left in mud look like the print shown.

Dear God, save us from such tom-foolery, please.

To the newspaper’s credit, they consulted with an expert who knows better. The expert gave a conservative, scientific answer, however, when the rock deserved a chorus of derisive hoots:

However, Dr. Phillip Murry, a vertebrate paleontology instructor in the Geoscience department of Tarleton State University at Stephenville, Texas, stated in his response to an interview request: “There has never been a proven association of dinosaur (prints) with human footprints.”

The longtime amateur archeologist who found the fossil thinks that statement is now proven untrue.

“It is unbelievable, that’s what it is,” Alvis Delk, 72, said of what could be not only the find of a lifetime, but of mankind.

Delk is a current Stephenville and former Mineral Wells resident (1950-69) who said he found the rock eight years ago while on a hunt with a friend, James Bishop, also of Stephenville, and friend and current fiancee Elizabeth Harris.

Yes, it’s unbelievable.

For comparison, real hominid footprints look much different — the print below was left in a thin-layer of volcanic ash about 4 million years ago, 61 million years after dinosaurs went extinct, according to timelines corroborated by geologists, paleontologists, astronomers, nuclear physicists and biologists:

Print of a hominid, found at Laetoli, Africa; image from Stanford University

Print of a hominid, found at Laetoli, Tanzania, Africa; image from Stanford University

With luck, serious scientists will get a chance to analyze the prints soon, and note that they are hoaxes. If history is any guide, however, Baugh and his comrades will keep the rock from scientific analysis, claiming that scientists refuse to analyze it.

The rock is approximately 30 inches by 24 inches. The human footprint, with a deep big toe impression, measures 11 inches in length. Baugh said the theropod track was made by an Acrocanthosaurus. Baugh said this particular track was likely made by a juvenile Acrocanthosaurus, one he said was probably about 20 feet long, stood about 8 feet tall and walked stooped over, weighing a few tons.

Its tracks common in the Glen Rose area, the Acrocanthosaurus is a dinosaur that many experts believe existed primarily in North America during the mid-Cretaceous Period, approximately 125 million to 100 million years ago.

Baugh said Delk’s discovery casts doubts on that theory. Baugh said he believes both sets of prints were made “within minutes, or no more than hours of each other” about 4,500 years ago, around the time of Noah’s Flood. He said the clay-like material that the human and dinosaur stepped in soon hardened, becoming thick, dense limestone common in North Texas.

He said the human print matches seven others found in the same area, stating the museum has performed excavations since 1982 in the area Baugh has dubbed the “Alvis Delk Cretaceous Footprint” discovery.

This “find” comes as the State Board of Education begins rewriting science standards for Texas schools. The chairman of the SBOE is a committed creationist who publicly says he hopes to get creationism into the standards and textbooks in Texas, miseducating Texas students that creationism has a scientific basis.

Delk’s own daughter, Kristi Delk, is a geology major at Tarleton State University in Stephenville and holds different beliefs from her dad about the creation of Earth and the origins of man.

She said she wants to see data from more tests before jumping to any conclusions.

“I haven’t come to terms with it,” she said. “I am skeptical, actually.”

Listen to your daughter, Mr. Delk.

In a story Texas educators hope to keep completely unrelated to the foot prints hoax, Mineral Wells area schools showed gains in academic achievement on the Texas state test program.

Additional resources:

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Gary Hurd at Stones and Bones, who Is a bit of an expert in this stuff, calls “fake.

Here is how to fake a patina that will look like this fake fossil: Brush the surface with vinegar, and then sprinkle with baking powder followed by baking soda, and let dry. Repeat until you are happy with the results. This is not the only way, or even the best way. But it is simple, and will fool the average fool. Especially easy if they want to be fooled.

So, having spent a little bit more time on the photo of this fake, I feel that I understand a bit more about how it was produced. A legitimate dinosaur track was found and removed. Incompetent, unprofessional “Cleaning” damaged it. An parital overprint, or simple erosion depression was “improved” by adding “toes.” The faked surfaces were smothed over with a simple kitchen concoction to make a “patina.” Artifact fabricators next bury the fake for a year or two, or they smear it with fertilizer and leave it exposed. This helps weather the object and obscure tool marks.

Did you find this post useful, or entertaining? Vote to share it with others — click the “Digg” button above; list it on Reddit or other services, if you have memberships there. Link to this post from your own blog. Help spread the word this hoax is coming.

Help stamp out hoaxes; run with the word:

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Real dope on human evolution

July 24, 2008

Subtitle this one, “DBQs in prehistory, paleontology, and anthropology.”

Younger son James complained yesterday about . . . well, about stuff he wasn’t taught. His questions to me were about what was available in the history textbooks on the great advances in science in the 20th century.

Very little is available, really. What had set him off was his summer reading where he’s been introduced, for the first time, to particle physics of the past 30 years. History texts may mention Einstein’s letter to FDR which started the Manhattan project. An outstanding history and science student in a U.S. high school can pass through the experience without ever learning what Einstein’s equation, E=mc², actually means, or how it pertains to his letter to Roosevelt, or when and how Einstein came up with it, how Einstein’s papers changed physics, how Einstein’s ideas were tested, how Einstein’s pacifism and Jewish heritage drove him to the U.S., and so on. Great advances in particle physics, or even in practical applications like CAT scans and PET scans, have fallen out of the books and out of the curriculum. 21st century medicine, but 20th century science texts and 19th century history texts. It’s the David-Bartonization of American education.

The stuff wasn’t covered in his AP physics or AP chemistry classes (what’s up with that?!), nor were most of the great discoveries even mentioned in any of the AP history courses.

No wonder the head of the Texas State Board of Education knows so little about science. Cue the country/western version of the story, “Been dumb as a stump so long it looks like genius to me.”** Plus, this makes it clear why the versions of curricula the SBOE head favors must be resisted.

Texas standards and national standards in history ask that students be familiar with American inventions and innovation. In reality that translates to Eli Whitney and the cotton engine, because it’s a key factor in the rise of plantation economics in the South prior to the Civil War; maybe some mention of water-powered looms; Edison and the light bulb; Ford and the assembly line; and maybe a mention of radio or television, usually with regard to the effects on culture. I know a teacher who has a great unit for Texas history on barbed wire and the Colt .45. World history mentions James Watt and the steam engine.* The Wright brothers and the airplane get a couple of sentences. Humans going to the Moon gets a few sentences, but not as much as Sputnik, because, well because Sputnik scared the bejeebers out of some of the people who yelled loudest at Texas and Florida textbook meetings, I imagine.

I’m not going to fix all of that, not right now. It’s a subject that deserves more time in the cooker, I think.

But I’m also working on plans for this next year. Pre-history human migrations, geological development of the planet — and last night I discovered a group hitting the Bathtub for information about humans and evolution. Sheesh! Another place where the history and science texts short the glorious science, where a student is more likely to be struck by lightning waiting for the bus than to get decent coverage of human evolution in the classroom. (Hey. Do you know a teacher who covers human evolution well in any subject? Put it in comments, below — I want to congratulate her, or him. I also want to steal the lesson plans.)

Here’s a quick fix, using some seminal documents that are perfectly classroom usable: Go to the Nature magazine website, and specifically look for the section, “focus on human origins.” If your administrators aren’t fully versed on No Child Left Behind, you can claim these as “research-based” (they are purely research-based; the law asks that our pedagogical methods be research-based, though, not the content, and that’s impossible; most of what we do in the classroom is tradition-based unsupported by any significant research, and federal laws and state regulations generally require the opposite of what the research says . . . don’t get me started). But I digress.

Nature is one of the premier science journals, a peer-reviewed or juried journal that is the prime place for key research findings to be published (along with Science, the other science journal giant). Most of their material is hidden away on the internet, held in proprietary sites available to scientists whose research institutions spring for expensive subscriptions (no, these journals are generally NOT available through the databases most high schools and non-research colleges purchase). Much of the best research of the last century is unavailable to high school teachers or students. This is true of chemistry, physics, biology and geology. The textbooks tend to obfuscate and cover the stuff up — or in the case of particle physics, ignore the field.

Several years ago Nature pulled about a dozen of the seminal papers in human evolution studies out of their vaults, making them available for free. These papers include some of the real classics:

Frankly, I wouldn’t expect to see these in a real DBQ in anything except, perhaps, human geography — but I can dream, can’t I? You can certainly create outstanding DBQ exercises with exerpts from these and a few other sources. Or you can simply use these complete papers in your classes. Except for a select few debate students at the upper echelons of competitiveness, real research papers fall out of the curriculum, and it’s a shame.

There is drama in these papers. Some of them shake the Earth, but in coolly scientific words. Ironically, the papers are not written so technically that they are beyond the ken of most high school readers. These papers are real history, real science, and our students deserve to read them.

Nature deserves our thanks for making these papers available. I wish other seminal papers were available, from Nature, and from other science and history research journals. Students would benefit from reading real history about the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the development of public health to fight tuberculosis. Students could mightily use to read about physics, biology, meteorology, geology, and other sciences upon which we rely to save the human race.

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* James Rowland of Woodlands High School in the Conroe Independent School District led a group of us teachers in an exercise last week at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, asking the question about who invented the steam engine and when. With six different AP or advanced world history texts, we came up with eight different answers, including two different years given for Watt’s work.

** Yes, from Richard Fariña’s 1966 novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (finished two days before his fatal motorcycle accident), and the song (pay no attention to the Lee Hazelwood-Nancy Sinatra song, but remember the Doors’s version is probably unsuitable for classroom use).

Resources:


8 year-old kid finds dinosaur tracks

March 18, 2008

Here’s a great story about a kid who made a significant dinosaur-related find: 8 year-old Rhys Nichols found the dinosaur tracks as he was strolling along a beach near his home in Scarborough, North Yorkshire.

Found the story via Prehistoric CSI, a blog which normally tracks dinosaur digs in Texas at the Seymour, Texas, “red beds” — and which is billed as having a limited run. Texas history and science teachers need to get over there to see what’s up. (Seymour is about midway between Fort Worth and Lubbock.)

Seymour Red beds logo, Robert Bakker, Houston MNH

Prehistoric CSI has some wonderful stories about digging and researching Texas fossils — see this one featuring 3-D images of a still-rock-encased critter.

I hope that site stays alive for a while.


Houston loves Lucy! Go see

March 16, 2008

We drove down, saw Lucy, had a great dinner, watched some television and drove back. About eight hours in the car, three hours in the museum with Lucy (click here to see a photo of Lucy as displayed — no amateur photos allowed in the Lucy exhibit).

Lucy, Houston Museum of Natural History, via AP photo

Well worth it. The entire exhibit is a travelogue about Ethiopia, really — but I got chills looking at real bones. You will, too, I suspect.

The exhibit closes in Houston on April 27. Wouldn’t it be great if the demand were so high that they had to hold it over a few months? If you’re in Houston, you owe it to yourself to see the bones. If you’re near Houston, if you’re within a half-day’s drive, go see. If you’re within a day’s drive, plan some other activity (there are other special exhibits at the Houston Museum of Natural History, on Leonardo DaVinci, on CSI and forensic science, marshes, and cowboys in Texas; there are regular exhibits, including one on gemstones that is better than anything similar at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.) — but go to Houston.

This exhibit was controversial, taking such a treasure out of Africa at all. You owe it to yourself, to your children, to Ethiopia, and to future policy, to see the exhibit if you can.

Photo:  Lucy’s bones, Houston Museum of Natural History photo, via Associated Press

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