September 9, 2014
I am just back from SVPCA, where I saw fifty 20-minute talks in three days. (I try to avoid missing any talks at all if I can avoid it, and this year I did.) As always, there was lots of fascinating stuff, and much of it not about the topics that I would necessarily have expected to enjoy. Examples include Tom Fletcher’s talk on the evolution of hydrodynamically efficient skin textures in fish, Lionel Hautier’s on the homologies of sloth teeth and Liz Martin’s on the skeletal-mass:total-mass ratio in birds.
But the brutal truth is that some of the talks were much less engaging. As the fish, sloths and birds prove, it’s not necessarily the fault of the taxa being studied — other factors are more important.
In a moment of frustration during one of the less appealing talks, I made a list of four basic points that contribute to a talk being compelling.
Here they are.
1. Love your taxon. It’s one of the main generators of enthusiasm, and nothing is more engaging than enthusiasm. I’ve seen dinosaur talks given by people who clearly don’t much care for dinosaurs. It comes through and destroys the appeal of the talk. Conversely, at TetZooCon a couple of months ago, one of the highlights was Helen Meredith’s talk “What have amphibians ever done for us?” about a group that doesn’t honestly excite me much — but the amphibians excited her so much that I caught that excitement. Ditto for Lionel Hautier’s sloth talk at SVPCA.
What to do if you don’t love your taxon? Give a talk about something you do love. If you don’t love anything, why are you in this field? Really, without enthusiasm, you’re lost. If you don’t care, neither will we. So care.
2. Show us pictures of your taxon. If you’re a particle physicist, pretty much the only thing you can show in your talk is graphs. But one of the great things about vertebrate palaeontology and comparative anatomy is that the field is just bursting with beautiful, photogenic objects. So for heaven’s sake show them to us! Yes yes, you may legitimately have to show graphs later on when you get to the hardcore stuff, but your best bet to get us interested in (say) voles is to show us that they’re interesting. In palaeo, that means we need to see both bones and life restorations.
3. Engage with the audience. That means you need to know your material well enough that you don’t need to be reading notes. Yes, notes are a help if you’re nervous, but they absolutely kill any sense of connection between speaker and listeners. Do whatever it takes to avoid a monotone.
There are two ways to do this. The simplest is to learn your talk. Write it out longhand if you find that helpful, but then rehearse it enough times that you don’t need the script — so that seeing each slide is enough to send you, Pavlov-like, into the relevant bit of spiel. Then you can be making eye contact and waving your hands around, just like you would if you were explaining something in a pub.
The second way to do it is even better. Don’t just learn your talk but learn your subject. If you get sufficiently familiar with (say) sauropod necks, then you can hardly watch one of your slides come up and not start talking about what it shows you. It’s better to fly blind (even if you risk a crash) than to crawl. (And of course you’re not really blind: preparing the slides burns the narrative of the talk into your mind, so that you know where you’re going even without really trying.)
4. Tell a story. People are wired to love stories. It’s not coincidence that Aesop and Jesus both did their moral teaching principally through stories; nor that Dawkins’ fine explanations of evolution are expressed in pretty much story form. People who are listening to a story want to know what happens next.
“I did a principle component analysis” is not a story. “How separate radiations of anole lizards evolved to fill the same set of ecological niches” is a story. If a principle component analysis is the way you reach the punchline of that story, fine: the point is, you’ve made us care about the PCA before we get to it, because we want to find out what happens to the cute little lizards (which you showed us lots of nice pictures of early on).
Here is the key point that underlies all this, and which I fear students are not always told as clearly as they should be: talks are not papers. A paper by convention is dry. It’s mostly words, equations and (often) graphs. A talk can’t afford to be dry, and by nature is about images and speech. It’s a much more human thing.
Here’s one reason why. We only read papers that we’re already interested in. I’ll read the sauropod papers in JVP, but skip over the fish, sloth and bird papers. That’s because I am already invested in sauropods, and because I know enough about them to make sense of a dry, technical paper. But when we go to conferences, we hear talks on lots of things that we’re not pre-interested in. A good speaker makes us interested. She has to. In short, a paper is directed at a specialist audience, while a talk has to win an audience from among non-specialists.
To be even shorter: talks should be fun to watch and listen to!
[See also: Tutorial 16: giving good talks (in four parts)]
September 9, 2014
I just read Mark Witton’s piece on the new new titanosaur Rukwatitan (as opposed to the old new titanosaur Dreadnoughtus). I was going to write something about it, but I realised that Mark has already said everything I would have, but better. So get yourselves over to his piece and enjoy the titanosaurianness of it all!
September 5, 2014
Mike and I are in York for SVPCA — more on that soonish — and I just wanted to get out some quick thoughts about the world’s newest giant sauropod.
First off, the paper (Lacovara et al. 2014) is open access, which is great. And, hey, 3D PDFs of the whole skeleton and selected elements — I’m going to be having some fun with those.
And given that this is a short initial descriptive paper, I was really happy to see a reasonably detailed table of measurements. The materials and methods section at the end spells out explicitly how the team arrived at their estimates of the animal’s length and mass. All of that looks very solid, and it’s more information that we often get in these short initial descriptions. So although I will look forward to seeing a complete osteological description of Dreadnoughtus in the future, this first paper is better than a lot of similar papers in that it includes a lot of actually useful information.
As for whether Dreadnoughtus was the world’s heaviest sauropod — how could anyone possibly tell? The femur of Dreadnoughtus is 1.9 meters, which is only three-quarters of the estimated length of the largest partial femur of Argentinosaurus. Now, there is plenty of evidence from both histology and macro-level indicators of skeletal age that the holotype individual was still growing, but how much bigger was it going to get, 10%, 25%? I think that given its size, completeness, and immature state it is fair to discuss Dreadnoughtus in the same breath as Argentinosaurus, Puertasaurus, the largest specimens of Alamosaurus, and other giant sauropods. But I think any claim that it is ‘the’ heaviest is premature until we know how big a fully adult Dreadnoughtus was.
Here’s a weird thing: according to Table 1, the 113-cm cervical vertebra of Dreadnoughtus is the longest known among titanosauriforms. But the longest cervical of Sauroposeidon has a 125-cm centrum, and Sauroposeidon always comes out as a titanosauriform in phylogenetic analyses, including the one in the Dreadnoughtus paper. The estimated 2.5-meter femur of Argentinosaurus reported by Mazzetta et al. (2004) is also not listed in that table, although some estimated lengths for other incomplete elements are given. I don’t think there’s any conspiracy here — it is actually quite a challenge to keep up with all of the relevant numbers — but I would like to have seen a bit more thoroughness in reporting measurements of other sauropods where at least some individual elements are larger than in Dreadnoughtus.
Anyway, as we found for the next-most-recent “world’s largest dinosaur” earlier this year, Dreadnoughtus does not extend the known size range of the largest sauropods. Period. Anyone who says definitively otherwise is actually making assumptions about ontogeny and mass estimation that just aren’t justified.
Does that mean that Dreadnoughtus isn’t interesting? Of course not! For one thing, now we can start talking intelligently about the body proportions of these giant titanosaurs. Up until now we’ve had a good idea of what other, smaller sauropods looked like, things like Mamenchisaurus, Diplodocus, and Giraffatitan, and we’ve had reasonably complete skeletons of small titanosaurs such as Malawisaurus and Rapetosaurus, but we haven’t had a very clear idea of the proportions of the largest titanosaurs (sometimes because of conflicting measurements). So now we can start investigating questions involving the biomechanics and hopefully the growth trajectories of giant titanosaurs, which were more in the realm of speculation until now. There are some tantalizing hints toward this in the current paper — for example, the authors mention that a lot of the bones preserve muscle attachments. That would be a fascinating study in its own right, just knowing what the muscle attachments can tell us about the soft-tissue anatomy of Dreadnoughtus, and in turn what soft tissue can tell us about how the muscles and joints worked.
There are myriad interesting questions dealing with the ability of the limb bones and vertebrae to support the mass of the body and how that skeletal support changed, both over the lifespan of an animal and over evolutionary time. Now, there is a limit to how much Dreadnoughtus can add here, since it’s only known by two individuals that weren’t radically different in size, but given how bleak the data landscape is for giant titanosaurs, it’s an important addition to our knowledge.
In conclusion, although I have some reservations about overlooked measurements of some other giant sauropods, and although the media-driven Dreadnoughtus-vs-Argentinosaurus pissing contest is pointless, I’m excited about this first paper. And I’m looking forward to more, both more complete descriptive work, and functional and biomechanical analyses building on that. Happy days.
- Lacovara, Kenneth J.; Ibiricu, L.M.; Lamanna, M.C.; Poole, J.C.; Schroeter, E.R.; Ullmann, P.V.; Voegele, K.K.; Boles, Z.M.; Egerton, V.M.; Harris, J.D.; Martínez, R.D.; Novas, F.E. (September 4, 2014). A Gigantic, Exceptionally Complete Titanosaurian Sauropod Dinosaur from Southern Patagonia, Argentina. Scientific Reports. doi:10.1038/srep06196.
- Mazzetta, G.V., Christiansen, P., and Farina, R.A. 2004. Giants and bizarres: body size of some southern South American Cretaceous dinosaurs. Historical Biology 2004:1-13.
September 2, 2014
A couple of weeks ago, more than hundred scientists sent an open letter to the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) about their new open-access journal Science Advances, which is deficient in various ways — not least the absurdly inflated article-processing charge.
Today I learn from email that there has finally been a response — of sorts. Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt had a long phone-call with Jon Tennant — one of the hundred-plus authors/co-signers. All we know about that call is (and I quote from Jon’s email account) “it became quite apparent that we would have to agree to disagree on many points”.
All I want to say is this. When a hundred scientists co-sign an open letter, it is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE for the response to take the form of a private telephone call with one of those authors.
Come on, AAAS. This is all about openness. Let’s see an open response: a substantive, non-patronising one which addresses the actual points made in the original letter.
Meanwhile, you may like to read this article at The New Statesman: Scientists criticise new “open access” journal which limits research-sharing with copyright. In finishes on this very clear note, courtesy of Jon Tennant:
The AAAS should be a shining beacon within the academic world for progression of science. If this is their best shot at that, it’s an absolute disaster at the start on all levels. What publishers need to remember is that the academic community is not here to serve them – it is the other way around.
August 28, 2014
I’m scrambling to get everything done before I leave for England and SVPCA this weekend, so no time for a substantive post. Instead, some goodies from old papers I’ve been reading. Explanations will have to come in the comments, if at all.
For more noodling about nerves, please see:
- The world’s longest cells? Speculations on the nervous systems of sauropods
- Oblivious sauropods being eaten
- Butler, A.B., and Hodos, W. 1996. Comparative Vertebrate Neuroanatomy: Evolution and Adaptation. 514 pp. Wiley–Liss, New York.
- Nieuwenhuys, R. (1964). Comparative anatomy of the spinal cord. Progress in Brain Research, 11, 1-57.
- Streeter, G. L. (1904). The structure of the spinal cord of the ostrich. American Journal of Anatomy, 3(1), 1-27.
August 21, 2014
I have often argued that given their long hindlimbs, massive tail-bases, and posteriorly-located centers of mass, diplodocids were basically bipeds whose forelimbs happened to reach the ground. I decided to see what that might look like.
Okay, now obviously I know that there are no trackways showing sauropods actually getting around like this. It’s just a thought experiment. But given how close the center of mass of Diplodocus is to the acetabulum, I’ll bet that this pose was achievable in life. If diplodocids had just pushed the CM a few cm farther back, they might have dispensed with forelimbs entirely, or done something different with them, like re-evolved grasping hands.
Image modified from Gilmore (1932: plate 6). Here’s a horizontal-necked bipedal Diplodocus and the original pose:
UPDATE the next day: I had forgotten that Niroot had already done a bipedal Apatosaurus, and a much more convincing one than mine. Go see it.
UPDATE the next week: Well, heck. Looks like the primary value of this post was so that people would remind me of all the other places the same idea has already been covered better. As you can see from the comment thread, Mike blogged about this at the WWD site, Scott Hartman drew it, and Heinrich Mallison showed that it was plausible. Sheesh, I suck.
- Gilmore, C. W. 1932. On a newly mounted skeleton of Diplodocus in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 81, 1-21.
August 15, 2014
This is an open letter concerning the recent launch of the new open access journal, Science Advances. In addition to the welcome diversification in journal choices for authors looking for open access venues, there are many positive aspects of Science Advances: its broad STEM scope, its interest in cross-disciplinary research, and the offering of fee waivers. While we welcome the commitment of the Association to open access, we are also deeply concerned with the specific approach. Herein, we outline a number of suggestions that are in line with both the current direction that scholarly publishing is taking and the needs expressed by the open access community, which this journal aims to serve.
The first of these issues concerns the licensing terms of the journal articles. The default choice of a non-commercial licence (CC BY-NC) places unnecessary restrictions on reuse and does not meet the standards set out by the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Many large funders, including Research Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust, do not recognise this as an open license. The adoption of CC BY-NC as the default license means that many researchers will be unable to submit to Science Advances if they are to conform to their funder mandates unless they pay for the upgrade to CC BY. There is little evidence that non-commercial restrictions provide a benefit to the progress of scholarly research, yet they have significant negative impact, limiting the ability to reuse material for educational purposes and advocacy. For example, NC-encumbered materials cannot be used on Wikipedia. The non-commercial clause is known to generate ambiguities and uncertainties (see for example, NC Licenses Considered Harmful) to the detriment of scholarly communication. Additionally, there is little robust evidence to suggest that adopting a CC-BY license will lead to income loss for your Association, and the $1,000 surcharge is difficult to justify or defend. The value of the CC BY license is outlined in detail by the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association.
We raise an additional issue with the $1,500 surcharge for articles more than 10 pages in length. In an online-only format, page length is an arbitrary unit that results from the article being read in PDF format. Can the AAAS explain what the additional costs associated with the increased length are that would warrant a 50% increase in APC for an unspecified number of additional digital pages? Other leading open access journals, such as PeerJ, the BMC series, and PLOS ONE, offer publication of articles with unlimited page lengths. The extra costs create constraints that may adversely incentivize authors to exclude important details of their study, preventing replication and hindering transparency, all of which are contrary to the aims of scholarly publication. Therefore it seems counterproductive to impose this additional charge; it discriminates against researchers’ best effort to communicate their findings with as much detail as necessary.
We feel that the proposed APCs and licencing scheme are detrimental to the AAAS and the global academic community. As such, we recommend that Science Advances:
Offers CC BY as standard for no additional cost, in line with leading open access publishers, so authors are able to comply with respective funding mandates;
Provides a transparent calculation of its APCs based on the publishing practices of the AAAS and explains how additional value created by the journal will measure against the significantly high prices paid by the authors;
Removes the surcharges associated with increased page number;
We hope that you will consider the points raised above, keeping in mind how best to serve the scientific community, and use Science Advances to add the AAAS to the group of progressive and innovative open access scholarly publishers. We hope AAAS will collaborate with the academic community to facilitate the dissemination of scientific knowledge through a journal committed to fully embracing the principles of Open Access.
We kindly request that you allow your response(s) to be made public along with this letter, and look forward to hearing your response soon.
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