Tuesday, May 30, 2006

PLoS One

Relevant to the long thread about ArXiv, etc., is an article in the current issue of WIRED magazine about Harold Varmus, the mastermind behind the Public Library of Science, and his battle for open access to science. It's pretty standard stuff, and if you're a biologist with a pulse, most of it isn't news.

Except for this.

"This summer, Varmus and his colleagues will launch PLoS One, a paperless journal that will publish online any paper that evaluators deem 'scientifically legitimate'. Each article will generate a thread for comment and review. Great papers will be recognized by the discussion they generate, and bad ones will fade away."

Sounds good to me. But I hope the sorting process is more complicated than that. A crappy paper might generate a lot of discussion because it's so bad. One the flip side, some papers are so clear and compelling that there's not much to say besides, "Yep, you got it." Since any idiot who has spent five minutes online can perceive that this might be a problem, presumably the PLoS folks have thought of it and have a solution.

I also wonder if the comment threads will be open to anyone. This is a big chance for creationists to be a real nuisance, then get kicked off, then complain that science is slanted.

Oh well. We'll find out soon enough.


Thursday, May 25, 2006

Warning: Old Navy Helo Pilot story ahead...

Tragically, it's not mine. One of Jarrod's animator homies, Kent Lidke, used to fly helicopters for the Navy. In Antarctica. It is one of those jobs that is actually even more badass than it sounds, as Kent's stories attest. This one's a gem. Many thanks to Kent for letting me post it. I'll pester him for more.


Warning: Old Navy Helo Pilot story ahead...

Back in the day, we flew some GPS surveyor guys from the New Zealand Geological Survey up to some unknown peak down on the ice. 60 kt winds, gusting to 80, the friggin' helo wanted to lift off at idle. They needed something like 45 minutes to an hour to get the precision they were looking for, so we shut down, and they climbed up the last 50 or a hundred yards to the top of the peak to set up their gear. After about an hour and 15 minutes, I finally decided I better go see what was up, so I pulled on my Korean War surplus Arctic parka over all the stuff I was already wearing, goggled up and climbed out. The wind would've just about blown me off the mountain, so I more or less crawled up to where they were. By the time I got there, my face was so frozen I couldn't talk clearly, so I had to gesture at my wrist and shrug in order to say "How much longer?" They said they needed about 15 more minutes, so I crawled back down to about 50 feet from the bird and curled up in the lee side of a rock to smoke a cigarette, more for the challenge and to kill time than anything else. The zippo lighter, contrary to claims, will not light in all circumstances, but the survival matches did the trick, and I sat on the side of a mountain in Antarctica no one had ever walked on before, smoking a cigarette in an 80 knot wind.

Anyway, after a while the guys crawled down from the peak and we all climbed into the helo. According the airspeed indicator, winds were still 60 to 80 kts. The book says the wind limits for starting up are 45 kts. Fortunately, in a completely unrelated chapter, the book also says the airspeed indicator is unreliable below 70 knots, so we decided it was fair to say that we didn't KNOW the winds were over 45, and hit the starter. Well, the damn thing was so cold soaked that the first engine wouldn't start, but the starter motor already had the rotors turning a little and if we didn't spin them up quick the wind would probably flap them right into the tailboom, so we flipped the starter over to the other engine hoping the battery wasn't dead yet. That engine lit, but hung up and didn't make it all the way to idle speed because half the fuel manifold was frozen shut. I opened the throttle wider, hoping if I let it run for a couple minutes the fuel lines would thaw out, and that when they did the sudden fuel surge wouldn't blow the engine up. Sure enough, after a couple a minutes there was a whump of compressor stall and a whine as the engine tried to overspeed, but we caught it with the throttle. After that getting the second engine started was easy, and all we had to do was manage to take off in a blizzicane.

We lifted off with the stick shoved almost all the way forward and still ended up backing out of the lz, and once we had a little room pulled the stick back to center. It was like popping a big parachute, 0 to 80 in no seconds with a right roll to get turned around in the direction we were going and diving down the mountain like Franz Klammer to try to pick up some airspeed to go with our ground speed. It seemed totally insane but it worked like a charm.

I would do that every day of the week and twice on Sunday if I could. That was a great f'ing day.

I would sincerely like to thank you all for paying me to do stuff like that.


See ya. I'm off to be a helicopter pilot in Antartica. *Sigh*

In lieu of going to fly a helicopter myself, I will seriously bug Kent to let me put up his awesome post on how flying a helicopter in Antarctica is like being a real-life space explorer. It's possibly the most badass thing I've ever read. Stay tuned, true believers.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Fiction and Nonfiction

In a comment on the previous post, Mike wrote:

"...let me tell you from experience that writing a short story takes a lot less time than writing a scientific paper. The reason? No-one can call you on minor irregularities. If I'm writing a vampire story and in my story the vampire wants to eat my liver as well as drinking my blood, then it's my prerogative to make the universe work that way: after all, I made it up. But if I'm writing a scientific paper and I want to mention in passing that Brachiosauridae as traditionally conceived may be paraphyletic, then I'd damned well better know (or find out) that this was proposed by Salgado et al. 1997, and what characters the argued supported the paraphyly, and whether those characters are good, and what others have written in response to the idea. All that takes time to work out - a lot of time. Whereas writing 'The vampire wanted to eat my liver' takes as long to write as it takes you to type the characters."

I strongly disagree with this, and I'm going to explain why out here, in the open, not in the comments on this miserable blog, which any self-respecting reader knows to avoid.

You are right that fiction writers can just make things up as they go along, and are thus less constrained by facts. Less constrained, not unconstrained. We'll get back to that in a minute. But I think you missed my point entirely. I explicitly drew a distinction between an amateurish short story and a decent scientific paper. I didn't define 'amateurish' or 'decent', but I had in mind the same thing you did (at least for the scientific paper, since you talk about chasing refs): unpublishable vs. publishable. I could kick out a short story in no time, it's true, but I doubt it would be publishable. And, okay, you can get just about anything published somewhere, so let's refine the criterion for success: publishable in a respected periodical. For fiction, something that's available on the newsstand, like The Strand or Analog, and for a scientific publication, a first-rank specialist journal that's available in most academic libraries, like The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology or Taxon.

If the workload is poured into 40-hour weeks, all of my substantial publications have taken about six weeks to write. The Acta paper took three months, but I was teaching and taking classes at the time, and those three months included Christmas break. The illustrations took another two months, under similar constraints. The chapter in The Sauropods only took a month, but I was working 6 or 7 days a week, and often for more than eight hours at a time.

I could bang out a short story in a couple of days, but it would suck, bigtime. If I poured six weeks of work into it, I don't know if the result would be publishable or not. Which is precisely my point: if I spend that same amount of time on a scientific paper, I can be confident that I've produced something good and useful. I have enough experience to know that it's good and useful before I send it out, and confirmation will come when it's accepted for publication (the vagaries of peer review notwithstanding).

The point of the previous post is that it would probably be good for me to take a stab at writing a good, submittable short story, just because it will be hard and there's no guarantee of external reward.

But the point of this post is to tear apart your argument, so I'm going to get back to that.

So, if this isn't clear from all that's come so far, I think that, deliberately or not, you sidestepped my point by comparing a publishable scientific paper to a short story that probably is not publishable. "...Let me tell you from experience that writing a short story takes a lot less time than writing a scientific paper." Yeah, but a publishable short story? If you're talking about your liver-eating vampire story, then I'm sorry, dude. It's not newsstand material and it probably cannot be revised to be so; any story that turns on those specific plot points is going to have to bring something amazing to the table in terms of language or point of view, because on plot it's waaaay too been-there-done-that. (Feel free to publish it and prove me wrong.)

Anyone can think of a cool scene--a man with a sword faces a monster, for example--and write about it. What separates the wheat from the chaff is the skill and grace of the execution. Just having the idea is not enough. (Except, evidently, in genre fantasy.)

Whereas in science just having the idea (and, hopefully, some data) is enough. You don't have to be a very good writer to produce a publishable paper. In fact, it's probably much easier for a beginner to rack up publications in the sciences than in commercial fiction publishing.

But now I'm the one comparing apples and oranges. Even in a small field like paleontology, there are hundreds of possible venues in which to publish (Jerry Harris lists more than 250, and that does not include many museum bulletins). But the number of newsstand publications that predominantly feature short stories is probably only a dozen or two for all genres combined. Getting a story into a newsstand magazine is probably the fiction equivalent of getting a paper into Nature or Science.

Nevertheless, I would not be surprised to learn that someone like Gene Wolfe or Stephen Baxter spends six weeks crafting a short story. I'm sure many authors can and do bang them out faster (heck, I once wrote a short paper in six hours) but I think your "fiction's easier" line would collapse if we looked at how real authors actually work. Along these lines, you might want to check out Stephen King's excellent book On Writing. One of the things he talks about is doing research--yes, research--for his stories and novels. It takes time to get things right. If you want to just make shit up as you go along, don't expect to have much a career publishing fiction (except in genre fantasy, natch).

Which brings me to my next, and hopefully final, point. "No-one can call you on minor irregularities. If I'm writing a vampire story and in my story the vampire wants to eat my liver as well as drinking my blood, then it's my prerogative to make the universe work that way: after all, I made it up." Editors most certainly can call you on minor irregularities. As can readers, who can write back to the editors and prevent you from selling any more stories. Plot holes, inconsistencies, cliches, failure to suspend disbelief--fiction writers have to dodge all of these and more, just as scientific writers have to make sure that their facts are up-to-date, their data are adequate to address the problem, and their conclusions are sound. Also, abiding by the rules you made up can be a pain in the ass and require some research of its own.

A great example of this is in the Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter "The Best of Both Worlds" (the one where Picard gets enBorgulated). Worf and some other dumbasses beam aboard the Borg cube to rescue Picard. Then for the rest of the episode, everyone tries to think of a way to destroy the Borg cube. Apparently no one notices that they have antimatter technology and the free run of the enemy vessel.

That's not really a fair example. If the Enterprise crew ever realized that they could just beam some photon warheads into the bad guys' redoubt, each episode would be about five minutes long. It's a shared universe, which means the writers of that episode were constrained by the kinds of solutions previous writers had come up with, whether they made any sense or not. Also, it's TV, which is mostly pretty stupid compared to anything you have to read. Finally, it's Star Trek, which is especially stupid compared to anything you have to read (see Michael Wong's hilarious critiques here). I have read enough interviews with authors of novels to know that continuity errors are a concern for them, even if they are small potatoes in Star Trek.

At the point I would normally sum up or generate some sort of conclusion, but it's a quarter after two and I'm zonked. Please rebut. Matt out.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Teaching, Learning, and Juggling

A few weeks ago I mentioned my quest to learn how to juggle.

Why would I want to take up such an odd activity? Not because it's hip or trendy, that's for sure. I suppose I always thought it looked cool. Even three-ball juggling has always seemed slightly superhuman to me. Just like anything with more than four legs is creepy--because that's just too many legs for me to keep track of--anyone using two hands to keep more than two objects in the air has, at a minimum, achieved a Jedi-like level of having his shit together, and may even have tapped some occult power.

But lots of things impress me, without filling me with the desire to do them myself. My admiration for juggling was crystalized into a desire to learn how when I read Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle. In which an amnesiac vagabond joins a traveling circus and traverses an immense, alien planet and has loads of adventures along the way. And learns how to juggle.

Silverberg is intense. When he writes about telepathy, you get the idea that he knows what he's talking about. His stories about multiple personality cases have prompted people to write and ask him if he has multiple personalities himself. The stuff about juggling in Lord Valentine's Castle made me want to juggle.

In my whole life, I have only talked to two people who can juggle proficiently. Possibly I have known many more, but if so it never came up and I never found out. Anyway, neither of the two I knew were worth a damn when it came to explaining how to do it. One of them has never shown any aptitude for teaching anyone anything ever. I suspect that he lacks the basic empathy that it takes to be a teacher; in his world there are only the talented and the talentless, staring at each other across an unbreachable gulf. The other is capable of teaching, and in fact taught me many things. But not how to juggle. I think he'd just been doing it for so long that he'd forgotten how the baby steps go. It's like concentrating on how you tie your shoes--you may still be able to get them tied, but it's harder and it takes longer. I think that to teach you have to be able to do two things: you have to empathize enough with your student to know that they need to take baby steps, and you have to remember what those baby steps are. Both of my juggling acquaintances failed as teachers, but on different counts.

However, the second guy was not an utter failure; he at least pointed me to Juggling For the Complete Klutz. I picked up a copy at a used book store sometime in the mid-90s. I read it. The guidance made sense, and it stuck in my head. I still have the book somewhere, but I didn't dig it out when I recently decided to pull the trigger. I didn't need to; I could still remember how it went.

What about the intervening decade? Why didn't I learn to juggle right after I got the book? The answer is dead easy: failure of application. I read the book, digested the lessons, and took a stab. After a couple of evenings of practice I was not noticeably closer to juggling, and I gave up.

Even now, ten years later--even though I've been successful in all kinds of things that really matter--even though it's just juggling, it was still awfully hard to write those words. I gave up. Ouch. Didn't feel any better the second time. But it's true. Some sins are easy to admit. You can say "I lied" with a shrug and a devil-may-care grin, and it doesn't feel bad at all. But to say "I gave up" is genuinely unpleasant.

This time I learned how to juggle because I resolved not to give up, no matter what. I decided that I would practice juggling for half an hour, every day. Half an hour is a long damn time when you're bending or squatting every ten seconds because you dropped your balls. Go do squat thrusts for half an hour and you'll probably end up like I did, drag-ass tired and sweaty. The first two days passed with no noticeable improvement. On the third day I successfully completed a single transfer. And from there on it got easier and I got better. Within a week I was actually juggling. A month later my record is 120 throws with no drops; not spectacular, but long enough to give any onlookers some suspense.

It is not easy to try something new, especially if you're no good at it, especially if you look stupid while doing it, and especially if it takes a while to learn. I think it is probably good for our souls to try new things just so we can know what it's like to really suck at something, to really look stupid, and to really persevere until we learn it. When you're a kid you're forced to do this all the time, whether it's basketball or fractions or whatever. But as an adult you are able to armor yourself somewhat. There is no foolproof recipe for never looking foolish, but you can tilt the odds in your favor by sticking to things that you're good at.

Another great thing about learning to juggle is that they payoff is not worth anything. There is no status attached to juggling. I don't do it because it will impress anyone or look good on my CV. I juggle because it makes me happy. I'm to the point now where it takes some effort to think about the moves. It is easier to just sit back and watch my arms go crazy, zipping out here for a catch, there for a toss, as if independent from my body. It still seems impossible and kickass, and I'm the one doing it.

It is actually pretty easy to force yourself to do something new if you think there is going to be a payoff. I hate learning new programs, but I keep doing it because I need them for my dissertation. Sometimes I realize that I love using them, but that's later on. I didn't learn Photoshop because the learning process was fun. I learned it because it was a mythical barrier guardian that was preventing me from publishing my first paper.

Now I'm starting to wonder how many things I have not done because on some level I don't think I'll ever be good enough at them to justify the effort. Why bother trying to write a short story when I know the result will be embarrassingly amateurish, and when I can spent the same time and effort and produce a decent scientific paper? I can think of lots of good answers to that question now that it's explicit, but I wonder how many times I ask it subconsciously and fail to answer at all.

So, here's your homework. Go find something that no one thinks is cool, that will make you look like a dumbass at least until you're good at it and possibly even after, and spend some time learning how to do it.

And if you want to learn how to juggle, ask me quick, before I forget those baby steps.

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Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, in books or on Wikipedia, or in one of those so-called "scientific" journals, the largest dinosaur of all time was not Brachiosaurus, or Supersaurus, or Argentinosaurus, or Amphicoelias, or Bruhathkayosaurus. Not by a long shot.

The newly described Stratoposeidon taylori trumped them all. Represented by a complete articulated skeleton from Hell's Attic National Desert in Utah, Stratoposeidon was morphologically similar to Brachiosaurus, only eight times larger. With a shoulder height of 44 meters and a neck 68 meters long, Stratoposeidon was tall enough to browse from the payload compartment of a Saturn V rocket. If Stratoposeidon stepped on a bull elephant, its foot would entirely cover the resulting puddle of elephant juice. Stratoposeidon is estimated to have weighed 17,920 tons (35 x 8 x 8 x 8). When it defecated, a bolus of macerated plant material five meters in diameter and weighing 65 tons would drop from a height of 25 meters, fall for just over two seconds, and hit with enough force to level a barn. Stratoposeidon's feet had a total contact area of 650 square meters, and they exerted a pressure of 270,000 Newtons per square meter (39 pounds per square inch) when the animal was standing still.

Immediately following the publication of the initial description, an anonymous poster on the Dinosaur Mailing List pointed out that the specimens known as Brachiosaurus may simply be juvenile stratoposeidons, in which case Stratoposeidon would become an objective junior synonym of Brachiosaurus! However, this has not yet been demonstrated. Furthermore, the authors that described Stratoposeidon have already responded; they threatened to petition the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature to preserve the name. One possible outcome of an ICZN ruling would be to sink Brachiosaurus in favor of Stratoposeidon, on the grounds that the former is only represented by juveniles and does not reflect the mature morphology of the taxon.

Below is a reconstruction of Stratoposeidon with various objects for scale, including:
- a Boeing 747 jumbo jet (70.5 meters)
- a Boeing B-52 bomber (48.5 meters)
- a Rockwell space shuttle orbiter (37.25 meters)
- the Millenium Falcon (26.7 meters)
- Brachiosaurus altithorax (=juvenile Stratoposeidon? -- 5.5 meters tall at the shoulder)
- an AT-AT walker (22.5 meters tall)
- a bull elephant (3 meters tall at the shoulder)
- Mike Taylor (1.8 meters tall)
- a Saturn V moon rocket (111 meters tall)
- several double-decker buses (each 10.9 meters long)

I stole the comparative images from various places on the Internet. The 747 and AT-AT came from Jeff Russell's Starship Dimensions, possibly the coolest site on the net.

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From a recent e-mail exchange with Mike Taylor.

MATT: On Costco.com I can order a 20x30" poster for $9.99. Do you have anything similar over there?

MIKE: Heck, no! You'd pay a fortune for a 20x30 print over here.

MATT: Really? That sucks. Where's your blessed Magna Carta now?

MIKE: No idea. I've not seen your Constitution recently, either.


We'll be here all week, folks. Don't forget to tip your servers.


Sunday, May 21, 2006

Matt's Law


If you'd like a version of this image that hasn't had some wiseacre's verbal diarrhea squirted all over it, dig this:

Photoshop posts will continue until morale improves.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Piling on the tetrapods

Here are three great tastes that taste great together: Balaenoptera musculus, Brachiosaurus altithorax, and Loxodonta africana. Plus Mike and me for scale. Many thanks to Photoshop for making this happy day possible.

The elephant and brachiosaur are both from the Field Museum in Chicago. Mike and I spent some quality time with them last summer, especially the Brachiosaurus skeleton. It is outdoors, so we could roam around it to our hearts' content, from the time the museum closed until it got too dark to see. One of the things we were trying to figure out is, how much might that animal have weighed?

This is not a trivial problem. Weighing large extant animals is no picnic. Almost all of the heights and weights of big elephants are to some extent estimates. When you shoot an elephant and it flops over, you can measure its length very accurately, but its giant body is no longer being compressed by gravity in the foot-to-shoulder axis and it stretches out some. Also, world record elephants tend to be shot out in the bush, very far from things like truck scales that would allow for accurate weight measurements. Usually the body is hacked up and weighed piecemeal, but there is some inevitable blood loss and so the summed weight of the chunks is not the weight of the animal in life. For both height and weight, a little guesswork is needed to figure out what the real measurement ought to be. The world record elephant was 13'8" lying on its side, and it is estimated to have been about 13'0" when standing. Conveniently, it weighed about 13 tons (these numbers are from the Guinness Book).

Now, using Photoshop and our not-yet-patented "stack of Mike" method, we pegged the mounted bull shown above with a shoulder height of 10 feet. In his paper on dinosaur models, Greg Paul (1997) cites a personal communication from someone at the Field Museum with the information that this animal weighed six tons. Because mass scales with the cube of the linear dimension, a 13-foot-tall elephant should weigh 2.2 times as much as a 10-footer, and indeed, 6 x 2.2 = 13.

One thing that occurred to us was to treat Brachiosaurus like a giant elephant. Brachiosaurus has a long pneumatic neck and the elephant has a big pneumatic head, so you can think of both of them as having a big air-filled mass of bone hanging off the front of their shoulders. In his book A Practical Guide to Vertebrate Mechanics, Chris McGowan gives some figures on a big bull elephant named Tantor. Tantor massed 6500 kg and his head was 750 kg, or a shade over 10% of his total mass. In the same paper mentioned above, Paul (1997) said that in sauropods the neck and head accounted for about 10% of the volume. So our elephant head/sauropod neck comparison is not completely retarded. The sauropod's tail is a bigger problem, but it probably only accounted for about 5% of the animal's mass, and the "stack of Mike" method is sufficiently non-rigorous for 5% error to be acceptable. On the flip side, elephants don't have air sacs or pneumatic postcranial bones, so a big sauropod would certainly have been less dense (but stupider).

BTW, the whale and elephant are in good lateral views, but the brachiosaur is foreshortened and that messes up the apparent proportions. The neck length is actually half again as long as the shoulder height, and the tail is about the same length as the neck. When you look at the composite photo, just imagine that the brachiosaur's tail is sticking out over the asphalt, and is not at all parallel to the whale's backbone.

Using the "stack of Mike" method, we found a shoulder height of 18 feet for the mounted Brachiosaurus. That fit well with what we've seen mentioned other places. If this Brachiosaurus was an elephant, it would have weighed 35 tons (1.8 cubed = 5.832, multiply that by six tons). For such a goofy method, that's a surprisingly satisfying answer. Colbert (1962) and Gunga et al. (1995) used volumetric methods and estimated the mass of Brachiosaurus at 78-80 tons, but in both cases the models are grotesquely obese, more like Macy's parade balloons than real animals. Alexander (1989) got 47 tons, but his model was also too fat, as Paul (1997) very convincingly demonstrated. Russell et al. (1980) used a limb regression equation to put the mass of Brachiosaurus at 15 tons. That just makes no sense. If a 13-foot-tall elephant weighs 13 tons, then an 18-foot-tall Brachiosaurus weighed a damn sight more than 15 tons. Anderson (1985) used limb bone regression and got 29 tons. Paul (1997) used volumetrics and got 32. Henderson (2003) used a digital volumetric model with realistic air sacs and got 26. Our 35 ton estimate is in pretty good company.

When we first cranked through these numbers last July, I wrote to Mike,

We can clearly disregard Russell's 15-ton estimate as crap, and anything over about 40 tons is ludicrous for that skeleton.

To which he replied,

Yes to 15 tonnes. I would not be so quick to dismiss over-forty estimates. Consider where the "shoulder" is. On the elephant, if you're talking about the highest point on the back -- which is a fairer comparison than the elevated head/neck -- then the height is maybe a little less than 10 feet. And it doesn't need to be much less to make a big difference. Six inches shorter, in fact, would bring the BOBA [Boring Old Brachiosaurus Altithorax] estimate up to 41 tonnes. Throw in the tail and I don't find 40 too extreme. (Dude!)

What is there left to say? This is the kind of thing I spend my time thinking about. And it illustrates a couple of points that you should always keep in mind:

1. Big animals are freakin' cool, man.
2. Measuring big animals is a kickass activity.

One last thing. None of the animals in the picture are record-holders. As I mentioned in the last post, the whale is, at 87 feet, about 80% of the size of the largest known individuals. The Brachiosaurus skeleton is about 85% of the size of the largest known specimens in the genus, and the elephant is 77% of the size of the world record. What a pathetic bunch of losers!

JK. They rule. Quite hard.


Alexander, R.McN. 1989. Dynamics of Dinosaurs & Other Extinct Giants. Columbia University Press, New York, 167 pp.

Anderson, J.F., Hall-Martin, A., and Russell, D.A. 1985. Long-bone circumference and weight in mammals, birds and dinosaurs. Journal of Zoology 207:53-61.

Colbert, E.H. 1962. The weights of dinosaurs. American Museum Novitates 2076:1-16. (FREE online)

Gunga, H.C., Kirsch, K.A., et al. 1995. New data on the dimensions of Brachiosaurus brancai and their physiological implications. Naturwissenschaften 82:190-192.

Henderson, D. M. 2004. Tipsy punters: sauropod dinosaur pneumaticity, buoyancy and aquatic habits. Proceedings, Biological Sciences 271 (Suppl.): S180–S183.

Paul, G.S. 1997. Dinosaur models: the good, the bad, and using them to estimate the mass of dinosaurs. Dinofest International 1997:129-154.

Russell, D.A., Beland, P., and McIntosh, J.S. 1980. Paleoecology of the dinosaurs of Tendaguru. Memoirs de Societe Geologique de France 139:169-175.

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A trilogy of time-wasters

In ascending levels of nerdosity.

1. http://www.jitterbug.com/origins/index.html

This site is pretty darn interesting. It traces the influences of literature, film, and myth on Star Wars. And it has some cool observations. For example,

Studying lightsabers taught me two important things: One, a "magic item" in a fairytale is just like a character: they're interesting in direct proportion to the number the "archetypal masks" they wear. That's why Luke's lightsaber is such a memorable part of the original trilogy: it's a gift from his mentor, who passed it along from his father, which Luke uses to fight his father, which his father destroys, so he builds a new one, which he ultimately refuses to use against his father. These are all important mythic steps, and each one infuses the saber with more "mythic power." In The Phantom Menace lightsabers are beautifully depicted but serve fewer mythic roles, making them less narratively interesting.

The previous site led me to this one: http://www.starwarz.com/starkiller/scripts.htm

It has original story drafts and script versions from back in the day, when Annakin Starkiller walked into a bar on the planet Utapau. Check out the illustrated second draft of the ANH script; clearly, Lucas was a genius not only at distilling mythic and filmic influences but also at rendering his sprawling script into a tightly-constructed movie.

"Was a genius" being the operative phrase...

3. Finally, when nothing else will do, when you just have to know what those biplane fighters in the Jedi vs. Sith comics were (Buzzards), or you want to sort through all 18 flavors of Star Destroyers or 191 classes of capital ships, or perhaps just contemplate the ineffable mysteries of the Star Wars universe, like the awesomely perverted-sounding Secret Tales of Luke's Hand, or how Aayla Secura got to be so friggin' hot, there is only one source to turn to: Wookiepedia. I literally spent an entire day just poking around there, and I barely scratched the surface. Please be careful.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The big'un

The other whale at the Long Marine Lab is a Blue (Balaenoptera musculus). It's an 87-footer. The longest known Blue Whale was 110 feet long, so despite its size, the one shown here is only 4/5 the size of the biggest individuals.

Here, at last, is something to stun even a sauropod worker. Check out this picture of Nick standing inside its jaws, and compare to the similar shot with the Gray Whale in the previous post. The Gray Whale could pass through the jaws of the Blue and not even scrape the sides.

Nick gave me an interesting perspective on how these big whales feed. They're not really filter feeders. A true filter feeder is something like a Basking Shark that just swims around with its mouth open and strains out whatever comes through. The big baleen whales pick their targets and engulf them with their giant jaws and extensible mouth/throat region. They are often feeding on swarms of krill that measure kilometers in extent. Rather than think of big whales as filter feeders, we should think of them as predators that take bites off of superorganisms that are hundreds of times larger. The fact that the krill are strained out of the water by the baleen is a matter of processing--it comes after the whale has taken a bite. Here Nick is measuring the mandibles, as part of a study on this very subject.

The size of the rib cage is staggering. As Nick pointed out in a recent joint talk that we gave at Berkeley, a 100-foot Blue Whale is approximately the same size as a Boeing 737, in both length and girth. So the next time you're on a 737 or equivalent, have a look around--you could be in the belly of a whale.

This one isn't that big, but still large enough to fit me inside with lots of room to spare. It is worth recalling that Elmer Riggs named the type species of Brachiosaurus altithorax in reference to a seven-foot rib, which was at that time the longest of any known sauropod. We didn't measure any of the ribs, but they're a darn sight longer than seven feet.

If you ever have the chance to go whale-watching, do it. I've been three times, all of them trips from Monterey into Monterey Bay. I've been fortunate in that I've seen new and bigger whales every time I've gone out. The first time we tailed a pod of half a dozen Gray Whales. It was just mind-blowing how big they were. Despite my derrogation of the Gray in the previous post, it is one thing to stand next to a skeleton and another thing entirely to see the animal in the flesh. It's a feeling that I always get when I'm around horses. They are just huge animals, way outside the human scale in terms of mass and strength. Multiply that by a thousand or so and you will know what it's like to see a Gray Whale in the flesh.

The second time I went out, we followed a momma Humpback Whale and her calf, which was about 2/3 grown. The Humpback was significantly larger than the Grays. But it didn't hold a candle to the Blue Whale that I saw the most recent time. From seeing the Grays and the Humpbacks, I had a feeling for how long it takes a whale to 'roll over' when it comes up and then goes back down. The Blue Whale blasted my expectation. It was almost stomach-turningly immense. After it spouted it would nose down and its back would break the surface in a long curve as it headed back down. But the back just kept coming, more and more whale emerging from the water until your mind rebelled: No living thing could possibly be that big. And yet it is.

These experiences have only sharpened my hopeless desire to see a sauropod in the flesh. What have saurichians come to?

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Finally, a real live whole dead whale

The Long Marine Lab here in Santa Cruz has a couple of whale skeletons mounted outdoors, and Nick got permission for us to measure them. I'll start with the pathetically tiny one, a Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus, foo'). By "pathetically tiny" I mean a shade over nine meters long and probably not massing more than 10 tons (incidentally, 10 tons is Mike Taylor's threshold for considering something interesting). Some other things that are nine meters long are the Supermarine Spitfire and the neck of a good-sized (but not record-sized) Brachiosaurus. Gray Whales get up to about 15 meters long and about 35 tons, or so Wikipedia tells me. That's a little longer than a big T. rex--"Sue" is only 12.5 meters--and probably about as heavy as a good-sized Brachiosaurus, like the mounted skeletons in Berlin and Chicago.

Whoops, sorry, I'm trying to resist the siren song of sauropods for a few posts here, but it ain't easy. A-ny-way, the Gray Whale skeleton at Long Marine Lab is still under construction. It's mounted at an oblique angle because Gray Whales use their baleen to strain small crustaceans out of the sand and muck at the bottom of the ocean, and they turn on their sides to do it. Like almost everything under the sun, the whales show "handedness" and tend to preferentially feed on one side (other examples that I know of include elephants, crocodiles, and turtles--how has Darren not blogged about this yet?). The skeleton hasn't been weatherproofed yet, but hopefully it will be soon.

Anyway, I hope you can look past the animal's extremely small size and find something of interest in the pictures. This next picture is kinda cool on its own, but it will be a lot cooler after I get the next batch posted, so you'll have something truly impressive to compare it to.

As we were working, flights of pelicans kept zooming past, on their way who knows whither.

Stay tuned for the mother of all sea monsters. For real this time, not like my crab confusion episode.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

More from New Brighton

More photographic booty from the New Brighton beach walk.

A shell bed from the top...

...and from below.

The biggest chunk of whale we found was this table-sized block with some ribs. That's Nick's hat for scale. The L stands for 'luscious'.

Now, seriously, there will be some respectable whales up next.


Miocene clams

No, really.

Nick Pyenson came down to Santa Cruz yesterday for some paleo and marine biology action. We met Kena Fox-Dobbs* and Patrick Wheatley of the Koch lab at New Brighton state beach in Capitola to walk the cliffs and see if anything interesting was exposed. The whole coast here is Miocene Purissima Formation, and there are definitely fossil whales in there. But mostly, there are bivalves. Herewith, some photos.

*If the name sounds familiar, you may be thinking of her work on condor diets (see, e.g., Chamberlain et al. 2005).

The Purissima in all its shelly glory.

Summa dem shells.

Here's what a fault looks like. With Kena (l) and Nick (r) for scale.

And here's what a fault does to fossils. The technical term is "hamburgerization".

Stay tuned for photos of Nick and me playing with whales.


Chamberlain, C.P., J.R. Waldbauer, K. Fox-Dobbs, S.D. Newsome, P.L. Koch, D.R. Smith, M.E. Church, S.D. Chamberlain, K.J. Sorenson, and R. Risebrough. 2005. Pleistocene to recent dietary shifts in California condors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 102(46):16707-11.


Friday, May 12, 2006

Signs that you're in a good lab

5. Advisor refuses serve fewer than three kinds of meat at parties.
4. All documents in lab filed stratigraphically (i.e., in piles).
3. Door propped open with small piece of Earth's crust.
2. Cabinets full of prehistoric monsters.
1. Lab door--yes, door--gets shout-out in the Berkeley Science Review.

Issue 10 of the BSR, the one you've seen sitting in piles around the building for the past few days (er, except for you non-Berkleyans, who constitute a significant fraction of my tiny readership. That's what I get for recycling e-mails as blog posts), has a story touted on the cover as "Berkeley vs. Intelligent Design." Naturally, Kevin is prominently featured in the article. A bit unnaturally, so is our admittedly awesome door. Here's the revelant text, with my comments in brackets:

Stepping into the Valley Life Sciences Building can be like taking a walk back in geological time. Archaeopteryx--one of the pit stops on the evolutionary road from birds to dinosaurs [Whoops! Maybe that road had some switchbacks...]--greets the visitor from a large glass case, its death throes immortalized in a limestone block. Further on, Pteranodon swoops in low over T. rex, majestically holding sway over the entrance to the UC Museum of Paleontology.

A quick trip up three flights of stairs and a more familiar realm again emerges: long, austere hallways filled with offices and labs and research posters. But while the evolutionary trip from the Jurassic to the present day may have been just as quick and easy from the perspective of Mother Nature, it only takes a glance at the clippings on the office door of Kevin Padian, Professor of Integrative Biology and Curator of the Museum of Paleontology, for a reminder that, from the human perspective, the journey has been littered with endless controversy, politicking, and rancor. Articles on the "merits" of teaching different viewpoints in science. A Bruce Springsteen quote from the pages of Esquire: "Dover, PA--they're not sure about evolution. Here in New Jersey, we're countin' on it."

And perhaps most significant, a small sticker with a drawing of Charles Darwin that reads "Charles Darwin, 5'11", 163 lb., has a posse."

Yes, it's true. Even when we Padianites are out of town, out to lunch, or just passed out, our lab door continues to fight the good fight.

The article includes an image of the Darwin sticker. Get your own here, and soon your lab door may also enter the annals of greatness.


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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The umbrella effect as applied to marine mammals

You know the umbrella effect: if you carry an umbrella, it may not rain, but if you don't, it's sure to. Same deal with taking a book when I hop in the car to go literally anywhere; about 95% of the time I don't need it, but any situation in which you're stuck for an hour or two and wish you had a book is by definition unforeseeable, so it's better to have a book along just in case.

Yesterday afternoon we went for a long walk along West Cliff. I almost grabbed my binoculars as we headed out the door. I consciously thought, "Hey, maybe I should take my binoculars." And then my stupid brain said, "Nah!"

Stupid, stupid brain.

Within five minutes of getting out of the car, we saw a pair of sea otters frollicking amongst the kelp. Just far enough out that some binoculars would have been great. Oh, and there was one rock a ways out where some sea lions were having a lay in the sun convention. And then on the way back we saw dolphins. I've never seen dolphins from shore at West Cliff. Finally, as we came around to Lighthouse Point there was another sea otter just about 50 yards from shore. Fortunately, I had a digital camera; unfortunately, it was the lo-rez POS we got for taking pictures of London. Here's my strikingly Nessie-esque photo of the alleged sea otter; you'd be forgiven if you thought it was a dead mime, or a really big bird dookie.

One of these days I'm going to get some of those binoculars with the digital camera built in, and I'm going to wear them everywhere. I don't care how stupid it looks. We can talk about stupid after I get ultrarich from selling my photos of Sasquatch and UFOs. I'll be that one guy who really did have binoculars and a camera ready when that once-in-a-lifetime event happened.


Oh, there were also shitloads of cormorants and pelicans, as always. Hardly worth mentioning. I'm just piling on the tetrapods to hopefully make Darren jealous.

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