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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.

Long-forgotten Lore

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