In praise of Jack McIntosh

December 14, 2015

A short one today, and a sad one.

I heard last night on Twitter that Jack McIntosh has died at the age of 92. It would be hard to overstate what an inspiration he’s been to me. As a professional in a non-palaeo field who went on to do crucial work in sauropod palaeontology, he blazed a trail that I have tried in my small way to follow. I think it’s true to say that, without his example, I would never have got into palaeo research — never even considered it a possibility.

Jack McIntosh, still going strong at a conference late in life. Picture from this tweet by ReBecca Hunt-Foster.

Jack McIntosh, still going strong at a conference late in life. Picture from this tweet by ReBecca Hunt-Foster. Hans-Dieter Sues for scale.

Others have written more about McIntosh’s crucial work — for example, determining the correct skull skull for Apatosaurus (McIntosh and Berman 1975), his careful historical work in collections (McIntosh 1981), his detailed monographic descriptions (e.g. McIntosh et al. 1996) and most recently his re-evaluation of Barosaurus (McIntosh 2005). When I made my own start in palaeo, around 2000, his chapter in The Dinosauria (McIntosh 1990) was the definitive overview of the sauropods.

Perhaps the best overview of his life and work is the interview that Jeff Wilson and Kristi Curry Rogers conducted with him for the afterword of the volume that they edited in his honour in 2005 (Wilson and Curry Rogers 2005). It’s well worth reading.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA --- Leading sauropod expert Jack McIntosh beneath Apatosaurus Louisae at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, a forty-ton vegetarian named after Andrew Carnegie's wife, which is over seventy-seven feet (over 23 meters) long and is the longest mounted dinosaur in the world. --- Image by © Louie Psihoyos/Corbis

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA — Leading sauropod expert Jack McIntosh beneath Apatosaurus Louisae at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, a forty-ton vegetarian named after Andrew Carnegie’s wife, which is over seventy-seven feet (over 23 meters) long and is the longest mounted dinosaur in the world. — Image by © Louie Psihoyos/Corbis

I’ll close with my own brief experience of meeting Jack, a privilege that I had only once. It was the 2007 SVP meeting in Austin, Texas. I somehow got invited to a sauropod workers’ lunch one day. By careful manoeuvring, I managed to sit myself next to Jack. At that stage I had two very minor papers to my name — the 2005 note on the phylogenetic taxonomy of diplodocoids and the 2006 Mesozoic Terrestrial Ecosystems short-paper on dinosaur diversity. In short, I was a nobody.

But Jack was fascinated by what I was working on. At that time, the Xenoposeidon paper was in press — no-one had seen it but Darren (my co-author), the handling editor and three peer-reviewers. I sketched the holotype dorsal vertebra — literally on a napkin, if I remember rightly — and explained all the unique features. At this point, Jack was 84 years old and could certainly have been forgiven for just wanting to have his lunch in peace, but he was deeply interested. Even at the time I was aware of the honour of showing this work to a man who’d been at the forefront of my field for four decades.

I don’t remember whether we discussed it at the time, but I’d spent the previous week, with Matt, Randy Irmis and Sarah Werning, in the collections at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, working on the remains of a sauropod from the Hotel Mesa quarry in the Cedar Mountain Formation. When the paper finally came out four years later (Taylor, Wedel and Cifelli 2007), we named the new dinosaur Brontomerus mcintoshi in Jack’s honour. Very nearly but not quite a year earlier, Chure et al. (2010) had beat us to the punch by naming their brachiosaurid Abydosaurus mcintoshi after him.

To the best of my knowledge, that makes Jack the only person in history to have had two sauropods named after him in a year. A fitting tribute indeed.

Update 1 (16 December)

Ken Carpenter writes: “Mike, Here is the electronic card I made for McIntosh’s 90th birthday. I’d like to have posted at SVPoW.”

For Jack

Update 2 (16 December)

Jeff Wilson has written a piece that goes into much more detail about McIntosh’s scientific achievements. Well worth a read.

References

  • Chure, Daniel, Brooks B. Britt, John A. Whitlock and Jeffrey A. Wilson. 2010. First complete sauropod dinosaur skull from the Cretaceous of the Americas and the evolution of sauropod dentition. Naturwissenschaften 97(4):379-91. doi:10.1007/s00114-010-0650-6
  • McIntosh, John S. 1981. Annotated catalogue of the dinosaurs (Reptilia, Archosauria) in the collections of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Bulletin of the Carnegie Museum 18:1-67.
  • McIntosh, John S. 2005. The Genus Barosaurus Marsh (Sauropoda, Diplodocidae). pp. 38-77 in Virginia Tidwell and Ken Carpenter (eds.), Thunder Lizards: the Sauropodomorph Dinosaurs. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana. 495 pp.
  • McIntosh, John S. 1990. Sauropoda. pp. 345-401 in: D. B. Weishampel, P. Dodson and H. Osmólska (eds.), The Dinosauria. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
  • McIntosh, John S., and David, S. Berman. 1975. Description of the palate and lower jaw of the sauropod dinosaur Diplodocus (Reptilia: Saurischia) with remarks on the nature of the skull of Apatosaurus. Journal of Paleontology 49(1):187-199.
  • McIntosh, John S., Wade E. Miller, Kenneth L. Stadtman and David D. Gillette. 1996. The osteology of Camarasaurus lewisi (Jensen, 1988). BYU Geolgy Studies 41:73-115.
  • Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel and Richard L. Cifelli. 2011. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 56(1):75-98. doi: 10.4202/app.2010.0073
  • Wilson, Jeffrey A., and Kristina A. Curry Rogers. 2005. A conversation with Jack McIntosh. pp. 327-333 in: Kristina A. Curry Rogers and Jeffrey A. Wilson (eds.), The Sauropods: Evolution and Paleobiology, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London. 349 pages.

I got back on Tuesday from OpenCon 2015 — the most astonishing conference on open scholarship. Logistically, it works very different from most conferences: students have their expenses paid, but established scholars have to pay a registration fee and cover their own expenses. That inversion of how things are usually done captures much of what’s unique about OpenCon: its focus on the next generation is laser-sharp.

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They say you should never meet your heroes, but OpenCon demonstrated that that’s not always a good rule. Here I am with Erin McKiernan — the epitome of a fully open early-career researcher — and Mike Eisen, who needs no introduction:

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(This photo was supposed to be Erin and me posing in our PeerJ T-shirts, but Mike crashed it with his PLOS shirt. Thanks to Geoff Bilder for taking the photo.)

It was striking the opening session, on Saturday morning, consisted of consecutive keynotes from Mike and then Erin. Both are now free to watch, and I can’t overstate how highly I recommend them. Seriously, make time. Next time you’re going to watch a movie, skip it and watch Mike and Erin instead.

Much of Mike’s talk was history: how he and others first became convinced of the importance of openness, how E-biomed nearly happened and then didn’t, how PLOS started with a declaration and became a publisher, and so on. What’s striking about this is just how much brutal opposition and painful discouragement Mike and his colleagues had to go through to get us to where we are now. The E-biomed proposal that would have freed all biomedical papers was opposed powerfully by publishers (big surprise, huh?) and eventually watered down into PubMed Central. The PLOS declaration collected 34,000 signatures, but most signatories didn’t follow through. PLOS as a publisher was met with scepticism; and PLOS ONE with derision. It takes a certain strength of mind and spirit to keep on truckin’ through that kind of setback, and we can all be grateful that Mike’s was one of the hands on the wheel.

At a much earlier stage in her career, Erin’s pledge to extreme openness reflects Mike’s. It’s good to see that so far, it’s helping rather than harming her career.

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(And how is it going? Watch her talk, which follows Mike’s, to find out. You won’t regret it.)

There is so, so much more that I could say about OpenCon. Listing all the inspiring people that I met, alone, would be too much for one blog-post. I will just briefly mention some of those that I have known by email/blog/Twitter for some time, but met in the flesh for the first time: Mike Eisen and Erin McKiernan both fall into that category; so do Björn Brembs, Melissa Hagemann, Geoff Bilder and Danny Kingsley. I could have had an amazing time just talking to people even if I’d missed all the sessions. (Apologies to everyone I’ve not mentioned.)

Oh, and how often do you get to rub shoulders with Jimmy Wales?

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(That’s Jon Tennant in between Jimmy and me, and Mike Eisen trying, but not quite succeeding, to photobomb us from behind.)

And yet, even with global superstars around, the part of the weekend that impressed me the most was a small breakout session where I found myself in a room with a dozen people I’d never met before, didn’t recognise, and hadn’t heard of. As we went around the room and did introductions, every single one of them was doing something awesome. They were helping a scholarly society to switch to OA publishing, or funding open projects in the developing world, or driving a university’s adoption of an OA policy, or creating a new repository for unpublished papers, or something. (I really wish I’d written them all down.)

The sheer amount of innovation and hard work that’s going on just blew me away. So: OpenCon 2015 community, I salute you! May we meet again!

Update (Saturday 21 November 2015)

Here is the conference photo, taken by Slobodan Radicev, CC by:

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And here’s a close-up of the bit with me, honoured to be sandwiched between the founders of Public Library of Science and the Open Library of Humanities! (That’s Mike Eisen to the left, and Martin Eve to the right.)

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MYDD! #OpenCon edition

November 14, 2015

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The palaeontology contingent at OpenCon 2015, all reminding you to Measure Your Damned Dinosaur!

Left to right: Jon Tennant, Mike Taylor, Ross Mounce.

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Hey, look, there goes my future!

One thing that always bemuses me is the near-absolute serendipity of the academic job market. To get into research careers takes at least a decade of very deliberate, directed work, and then at the end you basically toss your diploma into a whirlwind and see where it lands. After all of that careful planning, almost all of us end up where we do based on the random (to us) set of jobs available in the narrow window in which we’re searching.

Did you dream of being curator at Museum X, or professor at University Y? Well, tough, those jobs went to Dr. Graduated-Two-Years-Sooner and Lucky Nature Paper, PhD, and they’re not retiring for three or four decades. Or maybe your dream job comes open right after you, your spouse, and your kids get settled in at your new acceptable-but-not-quite-dream job. Uproot or stay the course? Or what would be your dream job finally comes open but they’re looking for new junior faculty and you just got tenure at Tolerable State U.

This drastic mismatch between carefulness of preparation and randomness of outcome was present even pre-2008. The craptastic academic job market since then has only whetted the central irony’s keen edge. Getting grants and getting jobs is now basically a lottery. I’m not saying that good jobs don’t go to good people – they almost always do – but there are a lot of good people in jobs they never imagined having. And, sadly, plenty of good people who are now working outside of the field they prepared for because of the vicissitudes of the job market. A handful of years sooner or later and they might be sitting pretty.

This is on my mind because I recently had lunch with a physician friend from work and he was talking about applying for jobs as a doctor. “The first thing everyone tells you,” he said, “is decide what part of the country you want to live in first, then apply for the jobs that are there.” Doctors can do that because there are more than 800,000 of them active in the US. Paleontologists are mighty rarified by comparison – it’s hard to say how many of us there are, but probably not more than 2000 active in vert paleo. So the usual advice for budding biologists and paleontologists is exactly opposite that for physicians: “Forget about living where you want. Go wherever the job is and make the best of it.”

Oddly enough, I don’t remember this ever coming up in grad school. It’s something Vicki and I figured out at the end, as we started the process of applying for positions. There are alternate universes where we are at Marshall (they offered us both jobs, but not as attractive as UC Merced at the time), or at Northern Arizona (which is bittersweet because we have totally fallen in love with Flagstaff just in the past three years), or other places. If I were choosing a job site based on everything other than the institution, I’d spring for somewhere in Arizona or the intermountain west in a heartbeat.

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But with all that said, we are happy here. It’s funny, when we got the job offers down here I thought, “LA? Crap, there goes the outdoor part of my life.” But Claremont has lots of parks, it’s tucked up against the San Gabriels and I can get into the mountains in 30 minutes, or out to the desert in 90. I’m spending more time outdoors than I have since I was a kid growing up in rural Oklahoma.

So I’m not complaining about my personal situation. Vicki and I both landed on our feet – and the fact that we both managed to stick the landing at the same institution is little short of miraculous. But we still had to step into the job market hurricane to get here.

If you’re a grad student and you’re reading this, I didn’t write it to freak you out. Just to let you know that it’s coming, and there are things you can do to improve your chances. Be aggressively curious. Write. Publish. Give good talks (and give lots of talks so you can become good at it). Broaden your skill set – if you’re going into paleo, knowing how to teach human anatomy probably doubles or triples the number of available jobs at any one time, even if many of them are not the jobs you’ve been dreaming of.

Then, at the end, pour yourself one stiff drink and cast your fortune to the winds.

Good luck.

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Many SV-POW! readers will already be aware that the entire editorial staff of the Elsevier journal Lingua has resigned over the journal’s high price and lack of open access. As soon as they have worked out their contracts, they will leave en bloc and start a new open access journal, Glossa — which will in fact be the old journal under a new name. (Whether Elsevier tries to keep the Lingua ghost-ship afloat under new editors remains to be seen.)

Today I saw Elsevier’s official response, “Addressing the resignation of the Lingua editorial board“. I just want to pick out one tiny part of this, which reads as follows:

The article publishing charge at Lingua for open access articles is 1800 USD. The editor had requested a price of 400 euros, an APC that is not sustainable. Had we made the journal open access only and at the suggested price point, it would have rendered the journal no longer viable – something that would serve nobody, least of which the linguistics community.

The new Lingua will be hosted at Ubiquity Press, a well-established open-access publisher that started out as UCL’s in-house OA publishing arm and has spun off into private company. The APC at Ubiquity journals is typically £300 (€375, $500), which is less than the level that Elsevier describe as “not sustainable” (and a little over a fifth of what Elsevier currently charge).

Evidently Ubiquity Press finds it sustainable.

You know what’s not sustainable? Dragging around the carcass of a legacy barrier-based publisher, with all its expensive paywalls, authentication systems, Shibboleth/Athens/Kerberos integration, lawyers, PR departments, spin-doctors, lobbyists, bribes to politicians, and of course 37.3% profit margins.

The biggest problem with legacy publishers? They’re just a waste of money.

Here’s the jar of wasps sitting out on the table in our back garden:

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OK, this is not so much an interesting specimen as a handy hint.

We hosted a picnic during the summer and it was absolutely infested with wasps. (One person was stung — everyone else had to look super-carefully at their sandwiches before each bite.) That made me realise we needed to get rid of all the wasps that haunt the garden, and this trap is the solution.

It could hardly be simpler: it’s an old jar with a tablespoon of jam in the bottom, topped up to half way with water. Then a tinfoil lid with a small hole poked through it with a teaspoon handle.

For some reason, wasps just can’t resist it: they crawl in, then drown themselves in the water trying to get to the jam. Then more wasps come. And they just keep coming, as you can see in the photo. We’re going to have to dig the wasps out and throw them away so that the trap has enough space for more.

The great thing about this is that it only seems to catch wasps: not bees, which simply don’t seem to see the appeal in jam-water.

When I separated my cat’s head from its body, the first five cervical vertebrae came with it. Never one to waste perfectly good cervicals, I prepped them as well as the skull. Here they are, nicely articulated. (Click through for high resolution.) Dorsal view at the top, then right lateral (actually, slightly dorsolateral) and ventral view at the bottom.

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Or you may prefer the same image on a black background:

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For those of us used to sauropod necks, where the atlas (C1) is a tiny, fragile ring, mammal atlases look bizarre, with their grotesque over-engineering and gigantic wings.

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