I am humbled. Humbled and awed

May 6, 2011

Although we like to stay sauropod-o-centric on SV-POW!, I just want to take a moment to acknowledge the most astounding publication I have ever seen, Sterling Nesbitt’s new basal archosaur phylogeny (Nesbitt 2011).  Thanks to the wonder of open access publishing, it is freely available, and I urge everyone to check it out, if only to gaze in open-mouthed astonishment at the scale of the thing.

In 292 packed pages, Nesbitt provides a new phylogenetic analysis of basal archosaurs, using 80 species and 412 characters.  But if that doesn’t sound like the hugest matrix you’ve ever heard of, what sets this contribution apart is the incredibly detailed work in describing and illustrating those characters.  In those terms, I can only compare it with Wilson and Sereno’s (1988) JVP monograph — but that described 109 characters, and even then not in such exhaustive detail as in the new work.  And everything else about this paper is also super-comprehensive: the discussion of earlier work, the description of the mechanics of the analysis, the extensive sections talking through the expected and unexpected results of that analysis.  To give just a tiny flavour, here’s a figure showing a bunch of basal archosaur braincases:

Braincases of basal archosaurs in lateral view (Nesbitt 2011:fig. 23)

Knowing nothing about basal archosaurs myself, I have nothing intelligent to say about the content of the paper — I will leave that to others, and I don’t doubt that Bill and Jeff will have plenty to say on their respective blogs.  I just want to marvel at the sheer scale of the undertaking.  My Ph.D dissertation was 285 pages long — by coincidence, almost exactly the same length of Nesbitt’s epic.  But dissertations are much less dense than papers: they are double-spaced (or 1.5x spaced in my case, since that was an option and I hate wide spacing with a passion), and figures each take up a whole page — or even two if the caption is separate.  All in all, I’d say that two pages of dissertation are worth one page of publication, near enough.  Which means that Nesbitt has poured twice as much work into a single paper as most of us do into our entire Ph.Ds.

Dude, pls.  You’re making the rest of us look bad.

(By the way, since a decent dissertation contains four or five non-trivial papers, it follows that there’s enough work in the new Nesbitt tome to have been equivalent to maybe ten papers.  but because it’s all in one package, he’ll only get 1/10 as many citations as he would have, had he written ten papers instead.  This just shows what a stupid way counting citations is for assessing the importance of someone’s work.)

The final thing that should be said about this is that by all accounts, Nesbitt is an uncommonly nice guy.  (I’ve only met him once myself, briefly, which is why I don’t feel justified in using his first name in this article.)  And I have found, almost without exception, that the most impressive palaeontologists are also the ones who are most helpful and generous.  I could mention Randy Irmis, for example, who seems to churn out half a dozen top-class papers for every publication I manage to get out the door, and who would be terrifying to be around if he wasn’t such a good guy.  Steve Brusatte is another one whose rate and quality of work is astonishing, yet who is always ready to help out other people.  (I am going to stop mentioning people by name now, otherwise those who don’t get a mention might feel slighted.  There are plenty of other examples, and you probably know who some of them are.)  I don’t know why it should be that quality × quantity of work correlates so well with niceness, but that’s how it seems to be, and I like it that way.

Anyway, go and look at — I won’t say read, not all the way though — Nesbitt’s giant analysis.  It sets the bar higher for us all.


7 Responses to “I am humbled. Humbled and awed”

  1. Heinrich Mallison Says:

    That paper is so awesome! I DLed it asap, and have managed to read a few passages of special interest – and man it rocks!

    I also threw the list of dinosaur synapomorphies onto the relevant wikipedia page, just because I have been wanting to fill that data gap for so long. :D

  2. 220mya Says:

    In your humility, you should probably spell Sterling’s first name correctly.

  3. Zach Miller Says:

    PROTIP: Right-click on the “open” button and just “Save As.” Otherwise it’ll never actually open. I’m terrified to crack this baby open, lest my brain explode from the sheer awesomeness and technicality of it. On the other hand, I reeeeally want to see those illustrations.

    Congrats, Dr. Nesbitt!

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    “In your humility, you should probably spell Sterling’s first name correctly.”

    Like I always said, Randy is a snarky, pedantic git who never has a good word for anyone and is only interested in scoring cheap points.


    I mean, thanks for the correction. (The article is now fixed.)

  5. 220mya Says:

    Isn’t that what friends are for? ;)

  6. Bill Parker Says:

    BTW…I’m told that this is just the warm-up and he’s gotten a ton more characters.

  7. Kristian Laughlin Says:

    i feel sterling owes be 16 dollars that i wasted having watched his 2007 imax epic dinosaurs alive. The show was awful, boring, and hardly in 3D. If anyone gets a hold of sterling please ask him to send me a personal email so we can discuss my owed compensation.

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