Growing up in the ’70’s I watched a lot of martial arts movies, which were all the rage at the time, and I became fascinated with martial arts.  I wanted to kick ass like Chuck Norris.  I eventually took up karate and discovered one of the funny ironies of life: by the time you’re actually able to kick ass like Chuck Norris, you’d rather not have to.

Another thing I learned is that the martial arts community is a fractious and opinionated lot and there is much in-fighting over which martial art is best, and within an art, which style is best.  I suspect that much of this contention arises in an attempt to draw students and earn a living in a small market.  In this regard it isn’t much different from science; I’ve seen earth scientists of various sub-disciplines partake in similar cock-fights over whose science is better, again, in an attempt to claw in the lion’s share of limited research dollars.

The origins of the martial arts is also a common subject of speculation.  The usual assumption is that the martial arts arose from a single common ancestor and spread from its country of origin around the world.  The usual assumption is that the Asian martial arts, at least, are derived from Kung Fu, and this is not an unreasonable assumption since Chinese culture was pervasive throughout Asia.  Karate, at least, is known to have evolved from Kung Fu, which was introduced to Okinawa.

Another interesting speculation is that the martial arts originated in ancient Greece.  Some urns depict fighters in stances similar to zenkutsu dachi and koksu dachi (front stance and back stance) of karate, and it has been suggested that the martial arts were introduced to Asia by the armies of Alexander the Great.  The ancient Greek fighting style, Pankration, is known to have been practiced as early as the 7th century B.C. and combined elements of wrestling and boxing.

Most cultures around the world have an unarmed fighting style – even knights of western Europe practiced a martial art similar to Jiu Jitsu – and it is a long stretch to assume that they have all derived from a single source.  It is more likely that many of the world’s unarmed fighting styles arose polyphyletically (independent of a common ancestor).   The fact that all martial arts use similar techniques and employ the same body mechanics to deliver them can be explained thusly: there is only one right way to do something.

In evolutionary parlance this is known as convergent evolution, which occurs when unrelated organisms develop analogous structures because they occupy similar niches.  This is why ichthyosaurs (reptiles) and dolphins (mammals) look so much alike despite being separated by nearly 90 million years.  Similarly as two, independently derived, martial arts refine their techniques to improve efficiency and effectiveness, they become increasingly similar to one another due to the constraints imposed by human structure and physiology.  This also puts to rest the question of which martial art is the ‘best.’

Several martial arts styles have sought inspiration from the animal kingdom in the development of their techniques.  The White Crane style of Kung Fu, for example, is based upon the characteristics of the Taiwanese crane.  But to find the real grand-daddy of martial arts we need to travel back in time more than 500 million years to the Middle Cambrian period.

As I have described in a previous post, in the summer of 2001 I was collecting fossils from the Middle Cambrian Deadwood Formation in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Among the fossil brachiopods I collected were a large number whose shells were perforated by large, irregularly shaped holes.  I wondered if these holes might not have been made by predators breaking into the brachiopod shells to get at the soft tissues inside.  Since knowledge of predation in the Cambrian period is scant this proved to be a difficult, but worthwhile, study.

Perforated Brachiopod

These perforations looked very similar to those on modern gastropod shells that were attacked by stomatopods, more commonly known as mantis shrimp.  Mantis shrimp are crustaceans characterized by large, raptorial forelimbs, which they use for attacking prey.  They can deliver either a smashing strike with their armoured forelimb, or a piercing strike with the tips of their appendages.

Mantis Shrimp

The forelimb strike of the mantis shrimp is the fastest of all known animal movements and can be completed in less than 5 milliseconds underwater.  It hits with a percussive force equal to a .22 calibre bullet; stomatopods have been known to shatter aquarium glass, and their strike is devastating to prey species.  Stomatopods are remarkably pugnacious animals and frequently spar with one another; it is not advisable to keep two together in the same aquarium as one will usually kill the other.

The following illustration depicts a stomatopod executing both a smashing and a piercing strike from the ready position:

Forelimb Strike (drawing by Carrie Allen)

These forelimb strikes bear an uncanny similarity to the rising elbow strike (age empi uchi) and spear hand strike (nukite) of karate.  The photograph below shows Sensei Jerry Marr (7th Dan) demonstrating age empi uchi on Eugene Fillion (3rd Dan):

Rising elbow strike

There is a fossil organism from the Middle Cambrian Burgess Shale in British Columbia’s Yoho National Park, called Yohoia tenuis, that bears strong resemblance to the modern stomatopod, including forelimbs that are ‘strikingly’ similar to those of the mantis shrimp.  It is possible that Yohoia might have been the predator responsible for knocking big holes in the shells of my brachiopods.  The following illustration is an artistic interpretation of how Yohoia might have performed both smashing and piercing attacks, compared with the similar stomatopod strike:

Yohoia strike (drawing by Carrie Allen)

It is fascinating that techniques practiced in modern karate were perfected during the early diversification of multicellular life, known as the Cambrian Explosion, half a billion years ago.  It also goes to show that, biomechanically speaking, there is only one ‘right’ way to do something and that, given enough time, every organism will figure it out.  This gives me hope that maybe someday even I will figure it out.  Then I’ll finally be able to kick ass like Chuck Norris.

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I often credit the late Stephen Jay Gould’s book Wonderful Life, for inspiring me to pursue a career in palaeontology.  I first discovered the Burgess Shale one Saturday morning sometime in 1990 or 1991 while listening to CBC Radio’s science show Quirks and Quarks.   In this episode, Professor Gould was interviewed about his recent book documenting the discovery, history of research, and significance of the world-famous Burgess Shale in British Columbia’s Yoho National Park.  I went out and bought the book later that afternoon.

It was amazing.  I was, at the time, an officer in the navy and read the book by the dim bunk-light in my cabin each night, enthralled by drama of life’s history that so eloquently unfolded on the pages of Wonderful Life.  Page after page was devoted to the reconstruction of the ‘Weird Wonders’ of the Burgess Shale; creatures so bizarre and alien they seem more like concoctions of Lovecraftian fantasy than long-extinct denizens of ancient seas.  While it’s true that reading Wonderful Life influenced my decision to become a palaeontologist and, more particularly, to focus upon fossils of the Cambrian Period, it was not the only influence that guided me along this path.  I was an avid SCUBA diver at that time, and logged many hours exploring the sea floor on the coast of Vancouver Island.  I was captivated by the strange invertebrate animals that I met on my dives: frosted nudibranchs, tentacled sea anemones, sea urchins, sun stars, sea cucumbers, octopods and diverse others.  I had been entertaining a possible career in marine biology until Wonderful Life steered me down another path.

It is probably of little surprise that I took so much pleasure in the invertebrates of the Gulf Islands, and even more in the ‘Weird Wonders’ of the Burgess Shale.  I’d been attracted to the alien aspect of the oceanic realm ever since my introduction to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, probably the greatest writer of weird fiction of the twentieth century.  I first discovered Lovecraft while in my teens and I have remained a great fan of his disturbing and evocative writing ever since.

Most of Lovecraft’s stories were published in pulp magazines in the the 1920’s and ’30’s up until his death in 1937, and though he was obscure during his life, he is a source of inspiration of most modern writers of horror – most notably, Stephen King.  Among Lovecraft’s best-known stories are those of the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ – bleak, pessimistic stories of cosmic horror whose protagonists, upon learning the true nature of reality inevitably go mad.  Lovecraft’s mythos is named for Cthulhu, an enormous cephalopod-headed cosmic horror that lies slumbering in the sunken city of R’lyeh, deep beneath the sea.  This opening passage from his famous 1926 short story The Call of Cthulhu sums up the bleak nature of Lovecraft’s stories:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

My favourite Lovecraft story, for obvious reasons, is At the Mountains of Madness which details a geological expedition to Antarctica that finds fossils of highly-evolved creatures, dubbed “Elder Things,” in Precambrian strata.  Without giving too much away, the expedition ends in disaster and the story begins with the narrative of the team leader documenting his account of the expedition in hopes of discouraging any future scientific investigations into the mountains of madness.

I have little doubt that my fascination with marine invertebrates, to some degree, stems from an early exposure to Lovecraft.  I have even less doubt that Gould’s description of the Charles Walcott’s discovery of the Burgess Shale in 1909 stirred my imagination in exactly the same way as did Lovecraft’s description of the doomed Miskatonic University expedition to the antarctic mountains of madness.

I think, though it hasn’t occurred to me until recently, that I get much the same thrill out of being a palaeontologist as I do from reading Lovecraft.  Imagine unearthing a rock that has been buried for hundreds of millions of years and finding a bizarrely formed fossilized animal that no person has ever seen before.  That thrill of discovery is what drove me to palaeontology and, more particularly, to study fossils from the dawn of multicellular life – the chance of finding something no one has ever seen before, just like those doomed heroes of Lovecraft’s fantasies unearthing secrets man was not meant to know.

Of course most of the time one’s fossil discoveries are within the realm of the conventional – sure new species of existing taxa are quite often discovered, but you don’t usually find something completely out of the ordinary.  Having the opportunity to work at the William Lake  Lagerstätte in central Manitoba has provided unparalleled opportunity to unearth some really amazing sea scorpions, jellyfish, horseshoe crabs and many other rare fossils.

The images below are two halves (valves) of a phosphatic shelled organism unknown to science, which I discovered from Middle Cambrian strata in the Black Hills of South Dakota in the summer of 2001.

Dorsal interior

Ventral exterior

They are still undescribed, partly because I still don’t know quite what to make of them.  They superficially resemble brachiopods, the group that I especially study, but they are something altogether different.

With every rock you overturn and every slab you split there is the chance of a new discovery; possibly something weird and wonderful that dwelt in the oceans of insanity.

Given my interest in the obscure literary sub-genre of palaeo-horror, I was pleased to discover a great new addition to the genre called In the Seams, written by Andrew C. Porter and published in Apex Magazine. The story, which can be read by following the above link, is about Pennsylvania coal miners who make an unusual fossil discovery.  One of the miners, in true Lovecraftian tradition, becomes obsessed with the discovery, working each night after the operation shuts down to further expose the site.  What he discovers is the cause of a mass extinction that nearly destroyed all life on Earth – a particularly voracious predatory creature into which the miner slowly metamorphoses, with dire consequences for our own world.  The story is a very entertaining piece of weird fiction in the Lovecraftian style, which is marred only by the author’s misunderstanding of geological time.  The mass extinction that wiped out 96% of the earth’s species occurred at the end of the Permian Period.  The fossils of the creatures that supposedly caused it were found in coal seams of Carboniferous age, deposited about 50 million years before the Permo-Triassic mass extinction.  But if you can overlook this gaffe, the story is well worth the read.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been a collector of things.  When I was a child I collected just about anything: rocks, stamps, coins, comic books and those trading cards that came in a pack with a stick of horrible sharp-edged gum that no one ever chewed for fear of lacerating their mouth.  If you grew up in the ’70’s you’ll recall that there were trading cards for just about every show on television.  My favourite cards from from the T.V. series, Space: 1999, but I also had a healthy collection of Welcome Back Kotter, Happy Days and, later, Star Wars cards.  I think I even had some baseball cards, too.

Of all my collections, the one that occupied primacy in my heart was my G.I. Joe collection.  I had an indulgent grandmother who always fed my growing collection every Christmas and birthday.  She even made outfits and equipment for them by hand – although the paisley fabric she used to make his sleeping bag detracted somewhat from the macho image my bearded, scar-faced warriors were trying to cultivate. The G.I. Joes of my era were the second generation Joes with the “life-like hair.”  I missed out on the arguably cooler first-generation Joes of the ’60’s which, despite having molded plastic hair, were World War II – themed soldiers with fairly authentic uniforms and gear from various branches of service.  The 1970’s versions had become generic “action heroes” rather than actual soldiers and were disassociated from war.  This posed a bit of a problem, since I never had an antagonist to pit against my troops.

I always coveted the first generation collection, although my vintage had some pretty neat innovations.  In addition to the standard flock hair and beard, in 1974 Hasbro released G.I. Joe with kung-fu grip.  This was really cool, because for the first time the dolls had flexible fingers that allowed them to grip their weapons and tools.  No more holding the gun in Joe’s stiff plastic fingers for the entire fire-fight.  A year later, due to the success of the Six Million Dollar Man, Hasbro released Atomic Man G.I. Joe with clear plastic limbs that showed the bionic skeletal chassis beneath.

Of all my G.I. Joe dolls, the one I was most excited to get and, ultimately the most disappointed with was Talking G.I. Joe. He had a pull-cord attached to his dog-tag and would utter a variety of phrases depending on how far you pulled the cord.  Unfortunately, the sound quality wasn’t very good and I could seldom make out his orders.  The only one I remember is “Set up the command post here!”  Worse still, the speaker quickly wore out and those hard-to-understand commands soon degenerated into a garbled slur, which sounded like a record that was played too slow.

Alas, none of these icons of my childhood are still with me.  As I grew older and my interests shifted, less and less care was taken in curating my early treasures and, as a consequence, they were lost or given away, bit by bit, until nothing remained.  This is one of the sad realities of life.  This is entropy in action.

Entropy is explained by Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics and is, essentially, a measure of disorder or energy lost to a system.  In a closed system entropy cannot be decreased; energy continues to be lost until all is gone, like a spring that winds down.  Of course most systems are not closed and energy can be input to counter the loss due to entropy – winding the spring back up, for example.  Thus my office is messy even though I tidied it up just a few short months ago.  Stupid entropy.

When I was a graduate student, my office-mate and good friend Richard McCrea posted a poem entitled Enemies of Entropy on our office door.  Unfortunately I can’t remember exactly how the poem went, nor can I find a copy anywhere, but I do recall that it described those kindred souls who felt compelled to salvage everything of the past – the treasures, the artifacts, the childhood toys – and let nothing slip away.  They were the Enemies of Entropy.

I think nearly every palaeontologist, and probably every museum curator, regardless of discipline, can relate to this sentiment and identify with being an Enemy of Entropy, not just professionally, personally as well.   I’ve been contemplating, for a while now, the nature of those people who choose to tread the esoteric path of palaeontology, and I’ve noticed that the profession consists largely of like-minded individuals who have much in common on a personal level.  I can’t say the same about co-workers in any other job I’ve ever had.

Aside from being avid readers, which one can assume of anyone in a scholarly profession,  palaeontologists/curators seem to have several several personality traits in common.  Chief among them is a fascination with the past and a drive to collect, preserve, and organize it – and not just at work.  I love visiting the homes of other palaeontologists, they are always filled with an organized clutter of fascinating books and curios.  One bookshelf in my living room has a number of curios interspersed among the books: a fox skull, a turtle skull, a large gypsum rose, an enormous ammonite (which I struggled to carry for many kilometres along the shore of Lake Diefenbaker, where I found it), a collapsible nautical-style telescope, several quill pens, and a box of rocks that my four-year-old daughter includes among her personal treasures (along with her prized leaf-collection and stick-collection).  My books are organized according to my particular methods; fiction is mostly in the basement organized alphabetically by author, non-fiction is mostly in the living room categorized first by size (large hardcover volumes on the lower shelves, with smaller books occupying progressively higher strata), then by subject and finally by author within each subject.  My study contains most of my palaeontology reference books organized with the most commonly used books closest to the computer.  My most often used brachiopod volumes can be reached without getting up from my chair.  Less often-c0nsulted books are arranged further along the bookshelves in order of decreasing use.  My dinosaur and other vertebrate books are on shelves on the other side of the room.  Everything might look like a cluttered mess, but everything is carefully arranged according to my preferred scheme – and I’m always thinking about better ways to organize things; it’s kind of an obsession.

This is an obsession that I think afflicts many in my profession.  I don’t know of many palaeontologists that don’t secretly enjoy hanging out in a collection room re-organizing specimens, filling out specimen cards, and preparing, labeling, and accessioning new specimens.

My compulsion to preserve the past doesn’t just extend to collecting, however, I also feel a strong need to preserve traditional methods.   It has become common practice, for example, to print off specimen labels, but that is a practice that I will never adopt.  I prefer to label specimens and fill out cards by hand, using a nib pen, dipped in a bottle of India ink.

Palaeontology is not just what I do, it’s who I am – it is a path I unknowingly set out on from early childhood.  What began with early childhood collections and an inordinate fondness for action figures with life-like hair became a way of life.

I am an Enemy of Entropy, and I am comforted by the knowledge that there are others who share my obsession.

Sometimes a comic strip is worth a thousand rants.

There was an encouraging article in today’s news: science writer Simon Singh won the libel suit filed against him by the British Chiropractic Association.  The legal battle began when the BCA sued Singh for writing an article in a British newspaper criticizing chiropractors for offering spinal manipulation to children to cure ailments such as asthma and colic.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the chiropractic profession rejects the Germ Theory of medicine and believes, instead, that all ailment is caused by spinal misalignment – making them the medical equivalent of flat-earthers.

While Singh’s victory is very good news it is unsettling that he needed to defend himself in court against pseudo-scientific nonsense that was discredited by mainstream science long ago.  Worse still is that the two year long court battle cost Singh £200,000.00 in legal fees, not including loss of income due to time spent defending himself.

The danger here is that large, well-funded organizations, such as the BCA, can target individuals who often do not have the resources to defend themselves.  This kind of legal bullying makes it very difficult for scientists to successfully speak out against superstition, pseudoscience, and fraud.

Unlike real scientific disciplines, which are developed over a long period of time by the research of many scientists, chiropractic was invented by one man in 1895.  D.D. Palmer, a grocer and “magnetic healer” invented chiropractic when he did something to a deaf man’s back.  The man said that he could hear again which, if true, had nothing to do with his back adjustment.  Palmer decided then that all disease was caused by misaligned bones, mainly in the spine.  This hypothesis was never tested, then or since, nor has any school of chiropractic ever been associated with a legitimate university.

Yet, thousands of people swear by their chiropractors including many of my friends.  So there must be something beneficial about chiropractic, right?  Well, yes: spinal manipulations have been shown to be effective in treating certain types of low back pain, but that is the only benefit of chiropractic and spinal manipulations are no more effective than other treatments.  Furthermore such manipulations can be performed by physical therapists.  Chiropractic certainly cannot treat asthma, colic, or any other ailment or disease.

One of the most positive consequences of this court case according to Singh is “that the chiropractic profession has been put under intense scrutiny,” and that “one in four chiropractors in the UK is now being investigated for making allegedly misleading claims.”

It is ironic that the BCA’s attempt to silence Singh has dragged their fraudulent practices into the light.  Chiropractic has been masquerading as a legitimate mainstream medical profession for over a century and it is high time that notion was debunked.

I’ve always thought an anthology of anecdotes pertaining to the serendipitous discoveries of scientists would make a really interesting book.  I think most, and probably all, scientists have, at some point in their careers,  stumbled upon an unexpected discovery by means of happy chance or fortuitous accident.

My own serendipitous moment occurred in June of 2001 in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where I was looking for fossil brachiopods in the Middle Cambrian Deadwood Formation.

Granite outcrops in the Black Hills

I had been combing the Black Hills for a week, ferreting out and examining outcrops of the Deadwood, and having very little success.  Time was running out and I was getting desperate.  I had begun my doctoral research by by studying fossils from drill cores of the Deadwood Formation from the subsurface of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and it was a good start, but I needed a more substantial collection that was fully representative of this expansive formation.  The Deadwood crops out extensively at the surface only in South Dakota and Montana, so that is where I needed to find my pot of gold.  But so far, the end of the rainbow had eluded my grasp.  Finally, it was time to leave.  I had agreed to meet a colleague from Europe who was doing fieldwork in Wyoming and so I headed west along highway 16 out of the town of Custer feeling a little sullen, and more than a little anxious, about my defeat.  Shortly before reaching the Wyoming border I decided, on the spur of the moment, to turn off the highway and onto a forest road.  Why?  I had already explored hundreds of kilometres of such forest roads in the past week – what made this one special?  Desperation and stubbornness.

As it turned out, that irrational gambit payed off.  Big time.  Along that forest road, at a place called Pole Creek, I found a thirty-six-metre high cliff containing exactly the type of lithology I was looking for, but had so far found only in scrappy, barren road cuts less than one-metre thick.  This was it; I could feel it.

Outcrop at Pole Creek

Jackpot - the outcrop at Pole Creek

I scrambled up the cliff, examining the rock carefully through my hand-lens.  Sure enough, I saw tiny fragments of shiny calcium phosphate in the limestone – the remains of brachiopod shells.  After carefully measuring and describing the cliff face I collected rock samples at one-metre intervals.  It would take months of preparation in the acid lab to extract the fossils and determine the diversity of the fauna, but I had a feeling that I’d found my pot of gold.  I don’t think I can describe the giddy feeling of excitement and relief that I felt that day.  I think it must have been similar to what a gambler who has just rolled a hard six at the craps table must feel.  It was one of my best days ever.

As it turned out, that locality was home to a more diverse and abundant brachiopod fauna than I had dared to hope.  The rocks I collected yielded  some two-thousand fossil brachiopods belonging to nearly thirty species, about ten of which had never been described before.  Some of those species formed a brand new family; the Dianabellidae, named for my wife.  There were enough specimens from this site alone to finish my thesis.  There were enough to fill a book, which in fact, they did.  I never did make it to Wyoming, and I regret missing my rendezvous, but I sure don’t regret the decision to head down Forest Road 17 that day.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that most discoveries are made simply through sheer, dumb luck.  To quote Louis Pasteur: “chance favours the prepared mind,” which, in this case means putting one’s self in a position to make lucky discoveries.  In other words to follow your hunches and to spend a lot of time in the field.  There’s nothing quite like looking when you want to find something, even if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you are always going to find something, though; sometimes you don’t find anything at all.  And sometimes serendipity deserts you in your hour of need leaving you stranded with your heavily laden vehicle stuck in the mud in the middle-of-nowhere and sometimes gales blow all of your possessions into Lake Winnipeg and leave you stranded, once again, in the middle of nowhere because its too stormy for your charter-plane to come pick you up (hence the subtitle of this essay)- but those are stories for another time.  Generally, if you spend enough time in the field, you’re bound to find something because as my favourite cartoonist, Bill Waterson, put it: “There’s treasure everywhere!”

Now, in days of yore, scientists were, almost exclusively, gentlemen of leisure; unlike most of us today, they were independently wealthy and largely able to fund their own research.  Today we rely upon research grants to get out into the field and let serendipity run its course.  Unfortunately to get those grants we need to justify the research by writing up a detailed description of what, exactly, you plan to do; what, exactly, you expect to find; and why, exactly, this is important to the world.

The only honest answer to these questions is: “I’ll let you know when I’m done.” Of course an answer like this is unlikely to be rewarded with funding, so we need to engage in some really interesting creative writing when filling out those grant proposals.  Usually this means you need find some way to link your research to whatever is the hot-topic of the day.  These days, all you need to do is work the words “climate change” into your proposal and you’re good to go.  Unfortunately if you are unable, or unwilling, to prostitute yourself in this way, finding funding gets a bit trickier.

In last week’s post I cited some examples of how we are are doing a poor job of teaching science.  The entire funding process another example.  Funding-agencies often consist of people who don’t truly understand how science is done.  They are like consumers wanting good value for their money and they want to know upfront what they are buying.  Unfortunately science doesn’t work that way, and the funding process puts the cart before the horse.

Charles Darwin was just such a gentleman of leisure that I mentioned earlier, but what if he lived today and his participation in the Beagle expedition had been contingent upon a successful grant application.  The proposal might have sounded something like this: “I plan to sail around the world for five years collecting plants, animals, fossils, and rocks and learning about stuff.”  His own father, a respected physician, was nearly apoplectic when he found out, and was completely against Charles wandering off and wasting five years of his life.  How do you think a funding agency might have responded?

Because, of course, Darwin did not hop out of bed one morning and think: “What a lovely day; I think I’ll discover the process by which evolution occurs in nature.” Rather, he seized at a chance for exploration when he was offered the position of companion to HMS Beagle’s captain, Robert Fitzroy.  The Theory of Natural Selection, one of the most profound and paradigm-shattering theories in humanity’s history, was the product of twenty years that Darwin subsequently spent studying the specimens he had collected during the voyage.  And it was all due to chance and Darwin’s readiness to capitalize upon it.

If the Beagle expedition were taking place today, Darwin would likely not be able to participate – he’d never get the funding.

Fortunately, earth-breaking (or in some cases bedrock-shattering) discoveries are being made on a frequent basis, despite the stumbling-block of funding.  Here in Manitoba there are no less than two new soft-bodied-fossil localities that are forcing us to rethink what we know about earth’s ancient life.  You can read some excellent accounts of these projects, written by lead-researcher Graham Young here:

http://ancientshore.com/2009/08/25/the-uplands-2009/

http://ancientshore.com/2009/02/06/catching-a-crab/

The discovery of these phenomenal sites is due, in no small part to…you guessed it…serendipity.

In my opinion,  just and theory are two words that should never be juxtaposed in a sentence.  Yet this phrase crops up on television, in the news media, and in popular usage with dismaying regularity.  This phrase suggests that the idea referred to is speculative supposition; a half-baked idea to be dismissed as trivium.  But in the scientific sense, nothing could be further from the truth and the frequency with which the word theory is misused suggests that we are not doing a very good job of teaching science.   Indeed, given the number of people have told me that they ‘don’t like’ science, I’ve come to suspect that most people don’t know what science really is – they associate the word with a guy in a white lab coat heating colourful liquids over a bunsen-burner.

Science is nothing more or less than a systematic means of figuring things out, commonly known as the Scientific Method.  It is how we make sense of the observations that we make about the natural world and allows us to interpret those observations in a meaningful way.  What’s not to like about that?

Here’s how it works.  If you observe something that you don’t understand, you might come up with an idea that seems to explain it.  In fact, you’ll probably come up with several different ideas.  These are called hypotheses.  For example, you sit down at your computer, eager to read the latest post on Lore Deposits.  When you open your browser instead of your homepage, all you see is some message informing you that the connection is unavailable.  Why?  You were able to access the internet yesterday – what has changed since then?  You sit down and think about what might be causing your problem and come up with the following possibilities:  perhaps your ethernet cable is unplugged; the network might be down due to problems with your service provider; there might be a problem with your modem.  These hypotheses seem to be the most likely causes, so you then begin to figure out which of them it is.  This is where you test your hypotheses.

You start by testing the easiest and most likely hypothesis – an unplugged cable.  You check the connection at your computer and modem and find that the cable is securely connected.  You have just disproven and eliminated your first hypothesis.  Next, you try re-booting your modem.  Still no luck, so you reinstall your internet software, reboot, and try again.  Still nothing.  Finally you call your service provider to ask if there is a disruption in the service.  They tell you that they are  experiencing technical problems and service is down in your area.  Bingo!  You systematically tested  your hypotheses, eliminating those you disproved, and finally discovered the truth.  Congratulations you are now a scientist!

Once a scientist has tested all of his competing hypotheses, eliminated those that did not pass the tests, and finally is left with one that seems to fit the facts, that hypothesis graduates to the status of ‘working hypothesis.’  It gets written up and submitted to a scientific journal for publication.  Before it can be published, however, it has to undergo the intense scrutiny of peer-review, in which other scientists examine your work and look for flaws in your methods or assumptions.  If they agree that the science is sound, your hypothesis can be published.

After publication, your hypothesis is studied by experts from all over the world who will further test and study your findings.  The stronger your hypothesis seems to be, the more intense will be the attempts to find flaws in it.  If, after many years of rigorous testing, your hypothesis becomes generally accepted by the scientific community it graduates to the lofty status of Theory.

Thus, far from being merely some crack-pot’s pet idea, a theory is about as close to truth as we ever get.  We must always allow for theories to be modified in light of new evidence, but robust theories become even stronger – rather than discredited, when such evidence is brought to light.

Sadly, I’ve seen far too many scientists, who ought to know better, refer to their hypotheses as theories when interviewed by the media.  They say “My theory is that…” when they really mean hypothesis.  Unless their name is Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Alfred Wegener, or some other such luminary, they don’t have a theory and likely never will.

So, am I being nerdishly pedantic in insisting on a strict interpretation of the word theory?  I don’t think so.  Diluting the concept of the scientific theory by popular usage opens the door to pseudoscience and religious dogma, whose proponents all want equal time regardless of the legitimacy of their ideas or the existence of corroborating evidence.   Creationists are particularly tenacious in their attempts to insinuate their religious beliefs into public school curriculum on the basis of providing an ‘alternative’ theory to Natural Selection.  They have, in recent years, tried to make their beliefs sound more scientific by repackaging them as ‘Intelligent Design Theory,’ but calling something a theory doesn’t make it so – especially if it lacks any supporting evidence.

Likewise, the medical field suffers under the onslaught of ‘alternative medicine,’ which has undergone none of the research, testing, trials, and scrutiny that backs up mainstream medicine.  Not a day goes by when I don’t hear advertisements on the radio for naturopathic, homeopathic, or chiropractic treatments claiming to purge toxins from your body, improve your health and vitality, and help you to lose weight.  These pseudoscientific practices claim to present alternatives to the well-understood Germ Theory of disease which guides all legitimate medical practitioners.

We live in a golden age of science.  There are currently more scientists practicing today than all of the scientists in history put together.  Yet, more and more, people seem to be turning to superstition and pseudoscience – perhaps because scientific research proliferates so quickly that it becomes confusing and difficult to tell truth from fiction.

What it comes down to is that we need to do a better job of teaching what science is and what it is not so that people are better able to evaluate spurious claims and separate the lore from the gangue.

Welcome to inblogural post of Lore DepositsLore Deposits first saw life as a series of natural history essays, entitled Lore Gangue, that I wrote for the online magazine, Confessions of a Pixel-Weenie.  Though that e-zine has been defunct for ten years now, I’ve often thought of resurrecting the series someday, as I had a great deal of fun writing it.  Thanks to the recent inspiration, provided by my friend Graham Young’s outstanding blog Ancient Shore, that day has come.

In its original incarnation, Lore Gangue, I spent a lot of time debunking false claims and pseudo-science, and touched upon subjects as varied as debunking the Drake Equation to exposing the damnable lies of door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen.  In Lore Deposits I want to evolve beyond criticism of the ignorant and the disingenuous, fun though it is, and share the thrill and wonder of discovery that makes being a scientist so much fun.  Though I am a palaeontologist by training, the essays will be an eclectic mix of subjects that strike my fancy.  Although I aspire to keep the focus on natural history I have no doubt that I will digress from time to time.

Its time to separate the lore from the gangue.


Long-forgotten Lore

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