It is said that, some time around 1590 AD, Galileo Galilei dropped two spheres of different masses from the Leaning Tower of Pisa[1], thereby demonstrating that they fell at the same rate. This was a big deal because it contradicted Aristotle’s theory of gravity, in which objects are supposed to fall at a speed proportional to their mass.

Aristotle lived from 384–322 BC, which means his observably incorrect theory had been scientific orthodoxy for more than 1,900 years before being overturned[2].

How did this happen? For nearly two millennia, every scientist had it in his power to hold a little stone in one hand and a rock in the other, drop them both, and see with his own eyes that they fell at the same speed. Aristotle’s theory was obviously wrong, yet that obviously wrong theory remained orthodox for eighty generations.

My take is that it happened because people — even scientists — have a strong tendency to trust respected predecessors, and not even to look to see whether their observations and theories are correct. I am guessing that in that 1,900 years, plenty of scientists did indeed do the stone-and-rock experiment, but discounted their own observations because they had too much respect for Aristotle.

But even truly great scientists can be wrong.

Now, here is the same story, told on a much much smaller scale.

Well into the 2010s, it was well known that in sauropods, caudal vertebrae past the first handful are pneumatized only in diplodocines and in saltasaurine titanosaurs. As a bright young sauropod researcher, for example, I knew this from the codings in important and respected phylogenetic analysis such as those of Wilson (2002) and Upchurch et al. (2004).

Until the day I visited the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and actually, you know, looked at the big mounted Giraffatitan skeleton in the atrium. And this is what I saw:

That’s caudal vertebrae 24–26 in left lateral view, and you could not wish to see a nicer, clearer pneumatic feature than the double foramen in caudal 25.

That observation led directly to Matt’s and my 2013 paper on caudal pneumaticity in Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus (Wedel and Taylor 2013) and clued us into how much more common pneumatic hiatuses are then we’d realised. It also birthed the notion of “cryptic diverticula” — those whose traces are not directly recorded in the fossils, but whose presence can be inferred by traces on other vertebrae. And that led to our most recent paper on pneumatic variation in sauropods (Taylor and Wedel 2021) — from which you might recognise the photo above, since a cleaned-up version of it appears there as Figure 5.

The moral

Just because “everyone knows” something is true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it actually is true. Verify. Use your own eyes. Even Aristotle can be wrong about gravity. Even Jeff Wilson and Paul Upchurch can be wrong about caudal pneumaticity in non-diplodocines. That shouldn’t in any way undermine the rightly excellent reputations they have built. But we sometimes need to look past reputations, however well earned, to see what’s right in front of us.

Go and look at fossils. Does what you see contradict what “everyone knows”? Good! You’ve discovered something!

 

References

Notes

1. There is some skepticism about whether Galileo’s experiment really took place, or was merely a thought experiment. But since the experiment was described by Galileo’s pupil Vincenzo Viviani in a biography written in 1654, I am inclined to trust the contemporary account ahead of the unfounded scepticism of moderns. Also, Viviani’s wording, translated as “Galileo showed this by repeated experiments made from the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the presence of other professors and all the students” reads like a documentary account rather than a romanticization. And a thought experiment, with no observable result, would not have demonstrated anything.

2. Earlier experiments had similarly shown that Aristotle’s gravitational theory was wrong, including in the works of John Philoponus in the sixth century — but Aristotle’s orthodoxy nevertheless survived until Galileo.

 

What a dream I had!

January 31, 2021

Oh, hey, so you know how the most tedious thing you can ever hear is someone recounting one of their dreams? I want to tell you about a dream I had last night.

Brian Curtice’s grandfather was in a position of authority to express condemnation of a group of people who had lost the electronic archives of the Daily Telegraph, but declined to do so. So I became part of a woke mob that went to Curtice’s house to express our displeasure to him. I got distracted by an outbuilding when we arrived, went in, and found that it contained the Sonorosaurus type material, which for some reason included two really nice scapulocoracoids. At that point my Index Data colleague Wayne (also part of the woke mob) wandered in and I expressed to him that I was having second thoughts about this whole protest and that my first concern now was protecting the holotype against the more indiscriminate members of the mob. But I kept thinking to myself “Why is this material even here? If anything, it should be in an outbuilding at Kevin Ratkevic’s house.” Then Wayne and I spotted a bunch of computer monitors running software that Curtice had written earlier in his life, and it became apparent that he was the creator of a Commodore 64 adventure game called Pilgrim for which the publishers had ripped off an 8×8 old-English-style character set that I had used in a game I’d published with them.

Ratkevic (1988:figure 4).Lower hind limb including tibia, fibula, and nearly complete left pes of Sonorasaurus thompsoni holotype ASDM 500. Elements found associated but not articulated. Entire assembled length 137 cm. Photo by Jeanne Broome.

So. I never remember dreams in this kind of detail. The fact that I did on this on occasion is strange to me — but then, these are strange times. A quick run-down of what is and isn’t true:

  • So far as I know, the Daily Telegraph archives have not been lost.
  • Brian Curtice is a sauropod palaeontologist, maybe best known for his work reassessing Jensen’s Dry Mesa sauropods (e.g. Curtice et al. 1996, Curtice and Stadtman 2001); I have no idea if he has a grandfather and whether he has any involvement with archives.
  • I do not know where Brian lives, or whether he has any fossils at his house. I highly doubt he has holotypes.
  • The holotype of Sonorasaurus does not include any shoulder-girdle material, but it was indeed described by Ratkevich (1988) — but Ron, not Kevin.
  • There really was a Commodore 64 adventure game called Pilgrim, published by CRL, and they really did re-use — without my permission — the character set I had defined in The Causes of Chaos, which I had published with them not long before.
  • But Pilgrim was by Rod Pike, and I very highly doubt that Brian Curtice, even if he was a C64 programmer in the early-mid 90s, ever published any games with a UK-based software house.

Matt’s response when I told him about this dream:

Just got to the scapulocoracoids and LLOL
“my first concern now was protecting the holotype against the more indiscriminate members of the mob.” LLOL x infinity
Well, I gotta tell you, that was a ride.
Jurassic-Park-style, through your hindbrain.
It had everything!
Woke mobs, holotypes, old school adventure games, intellectual property (at the start and at the end)
lost archives
this is so specific in so many weirdly-specialized areas that whole schools may spring up to interpret it. You might accidentally found a new religion.

All right, folks: interpret for me!

References

  • Curtice, Brian D., Kenneth L. Stadtman and Linda J. Curtice. 1996. A reassessment of Ultrasauros macintoshi (Jensen, 1985). The continental Jurassic (M. Morales, ed.): Museum of Northern Arizona Bulletin 60:87–95.
  • Curtice, Brian D. and Kenneth L. Stadtman. 2001. The demise of Dystylosaurus edwini and a revision of Supersaurus vivianae. Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists and Mesa Southwest Museum and Southwest Paleontologists Symposium, Bulletin 8:33–40.
  • Ratkevich, Ron. 1998. New Cretaceous brachiosaurid dinosaur, Sonorasaurus thompsoni gen et sp. nov, from Arizona. Journal of the Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science 31:71–82.

You! Shall not! Pass!

August 22, 2020

OK, technically this is MB.R.3822, a dorsal vertebra of Giraffatitan brancai formerly known as HMN Ar1, in posterior view, rendered from a 3D scan provided by Heinrich Mallison.

But you can’t tell me that when you look at that you don’t see Gandalf shouting at a balrog.

I think we’ve all had enough of the Impact Factor as a way of measuring the quality of journals. From Ginny Barbour’s forensic account of negotiating PLoS Medicine’s IF back in 2006, via Stephen Curry’s measured rant back in 2012 (“if you use impact factors you are statistically illiterate”) and Björn Brembs’ survey of how very widespread IF negotations are in 2016, to all the recent negotiations with Clarivate about which journals should even have IFs, it’s become increasingly obvious that the Impact Factor is not a metric, it’s a negotiation.

And of course this means that the reason any journal has the particular IF it has is competely opaque.

The world needs a much more transparent metric of journal quality, and I am here to offer it! The Objective Quality Factor (QOF) is assigned in a wholly straightforward way that anyone can understand:

Your journal obtains an OQF of x by paying me x pounds.

That’s it. As soon as I acknowledge your payment, you have the right to display your OQF on the journal home page and in marketing materials.

If another journal in your field obtains a higher OQF than yours, and you need to regain your journal’s position at the top of the totem pole, all you need do is send me more money.

Payments via PayPal to ebay@miketaylor.org.uk please!

We’re just back from an excellent SVPCA on the Isle of Wight. We’ll write more about it, but this time I just want to draw attention to a neat find. During a bit of down time, Matt and Vicki were wandering around West Cowes (the town where the scientific sessions were held), when they stumbled across a place called That Shop. Intrigued by all the Lego figures in the window, they went in, and Matt found a small section of fossils. Including … an Iguanodon pelvis, supposedly certified as such by the Dinosaur Isle museum.

21A47352-31E1-43EE-B1E0-6432C6D7D366

Here it is: I imagine that whoever classified it read this elongate concave surface as part of the acetabulum. Matt’s hypothesis is that they mistook it for a sacral vertebra and that became “pelvis” via over-simplification.

It’s about 18 cm in a straight line across the widest part, or 20 cm around the curve.

Here is an actual documentary record of Matt’s moment of discovery:

Yep, you got it! It’s a sauropod vertebra! (Matt would never have spent good money on a stinkin’ appendicular element of a stinkin’ ornithopod.)

Specifically, it’s the bottom half of the front part of the centrum of a dorsal vertebra:

Eucamerotus” dorsal vertebra NHMUK PV R88 in right lateral and anterior views. Non-faded portions show the location of the Wedel Specimen. Modified from Hulke (1880: plate IV).

In these photos, we’re looking down into it more or less directly dorsal view, with anterior to the left. Click through the photos, and — once you know what you’re looking at — you can clearly see the pneumatic spaces: nice patches of finished bone lining the camellae, with trabecular bone in between.

Clearly there’s nowhere near enough of this to say what it is with any certainty. But our best guess is that it seems compatible with a titanosauriform identity, quite possibly in same space as the various Wealden sauropod dorsals that have been assigned to Ornithopsis or Eucamerotus.

References

  • Hulke, J. W.  1880.  Supplementary Note on the Vertebræ of Ornithopsis, Seeley, = Eucamerotous, Hulke. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 36:31–35.  doi:10.1144/GSL.JGS.1880.036.01-04.06

The stupidest head

August 21, 2019

Left: Homo sapiens, head, neck and upper trunk in right lateral view (unprepared specimen). Right: Camarasaurus sp., skull in left lateral view. Photograph at the Natural History Museum of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. 2016.

Well, that didn’t take long. Earlier today, my subterranean hacker collective released thousands of emails exchanged by Mike Taylor and Brian Engh, which touched on numerous issues of national and global security. Of most interest to SV-POW! readers will be this correspondence from just a few hours ago:

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Mike: Artwork attached. [Scroll down to see Mike’s submission.–MJW]

Brian: NAILED IT.

I haven’t been responding here to entrants but i feel pretty safe calling this one the winner already. Thank you for submitting. We can now sit back and laugh as all the other feeble entrants squabble knowing that you’ve already got this one in the bag.

Mike: Thanks, Brian. I hesitated before submitting this, thinking it might not be fair to up-and-coming artists who need the win more than I do; but in the end, I decided that was patronising. If they’re going to win the prize, they have to beat me on merit. You never know: it could happen.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

So, it looks like Brian has made his decision and the contest is effectively over. Although Mike says that someone else winning the contest “could happen”, Brian’s already signaled his intention to “laugh as all the other feeble entrants squabble”, which hardly sounds like he’s going to be giving anyone else a fair shake.

In Brian’s defense, the art that Mike submitted is glorious:

So complex and subtle is this work, so playful in its blending of traditional and cutting-edge thinking, so packed with detail, life history, and sheer emotion, that I feel certain that it will usher in a new era of paleoart as the dominant aesthetic expression on this planet.

Still, I don’t see how #TheSummonENGH2018 is going to survive the inevitable scandal of having a winner secretly chosen on the second day of the contest. I’m torn between towering admiration for my friends and colleagues, and fear for the rifts this may cause in the paleoart community.

I’ve reached out to representatives of both Mike and Brian for comment, and I’ll keep you updated on this developing story as more information becomes available.

My good friend, frequent collaborator, and fellow adventurer Brian Engh has won the John J. Lanzendorf Paleoart Prize for 2D paleoart (there are also categories for 3D paleoart and scientific illustration). He’s in august company; previous Lanzendorf winners include luminaries like John Gurche, Michael Skrepnick, Mark Hallett, Todd Marshall, and Julius Csotonyi (among many others–see the complete list of previous winners here). Naturally I’m happy as heck for Brian, and immensely proud of him, not only for the award, but also for what he’s doing now. Usually when we say “pay it forward” we mean metaphorically, but Brian is literally going to pay it forward. He’s created his own paleoart contest, the SummonENGH 2018, and he will award half of his October Patreon take to the winner.

He lays out the rules on his blog and in this video:

There’s a Facebook group, here, and a hashtag: #TheSummonEngh2018 (Facebook, Twitter).

Why do I think this is cool? It’s no exaggeration to say that I am a paleontologist today because I was exposed to mind-bending paleoart from a young age. Brian cares about paleoart–he cares about making better paleoart, himself, and he cares about making paleoart better, for everyone. And now he’s putting his money where his mouth his and doing something to hopefully bring more visibility to the paleoart community, and help move the field forward. That’s admirable, and I’m happy to support the cause.

Also, when we visited the Aquilops display at Dinosaur Journey this summer, we were lucky enough to capture this single frame showing a 100% real paleo-energy discharge. I definitely felt something at the time, but I didn’t know the full extent of what had happened until Brian sorted through our photos after the trip. Apparently this was all fated to happen–some kind of transdimensional chronoparticle emission linking past and future–and who am I to argue with fate?

Now, go summon monsters!

Imposter syndrome revisited

September 13, 2018

My wife Fiona is a musician and composer, and she’s giving a talk at this year’s TetZooCon on “Music for Wildlife Documentaries – A Composer’s Perspective”. (By the way, it looks like some tickets are still available: if you live near or in striking distance of London, you should definitely go! Get your tickets here.)

With less than four weeks to go, she’s starting to get nervous — to feel that she doesn’t know enough about wildlife to talk to the famously knowledgeable and attractive TetZooCon audience. In other words, it’s a classic case of our old friend imposter syndrome.

Wanting to reassure her about how common this is, I posted a Twitter poll:

Question for academics, including grad-students.
(Please RT for better coverage.)

Have you ever experienced Imposter Syndrome?
(And feel free to leave comments with more detail.)

Here are the results at the end of the 24-hour voting period:

Based on a sample of nearly 200 academics, just one in 25 claims not have experienced imposter syndrome; nearly two thirds feel it all the time.

The comments are worth reading, too. For example, Konrad Förstner responded:

Constantly. I would not be astonished if at some point a person from the administration knocks at my door and tells me that my work was just occupational therapy to keep me busy but that my healthcare insurance will not pay this any longer.

What does this mean? Only this: you are not alone. Outside of a tiny proportion of people, everyone else you know and work with sometimes feels that way. Most of them always feel that way. And yet, think about the work they do. It’s pretty good, isn’t it? Despite how they feel? From the outside, you can see that they’re not imposters.

Guess what? They can see that you‘re not an imposter, either.

The opening remarks by the hosts of conferences are usually highly forgettable, a courtesy platform offered to a high-ranking academic who has nothing to say about the conference’s subject. NOT THIS TIME!

This is the opening address of APE 2018, the Academic Publishing in Europe conference. The remarks are by Martin Grötschel, who as well as being president of the host institution, the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, is a 25-year veteran of open-access campaigning. and a member of the German DEAL negotiating team.

Here are some choice quotes:

1m50s: “I have always been aware of the significant imbalance and the fundamental divisions of the academic publication market. Being in the DEAL negotiation team, this became even more apparent …”

2m04s: “On the side of the scientists there is an atomistic market where, up to now and unfortunately, many of the actors play without having any clue about the economic consequences of their activities.”

2m22s: “In Germany and a few other countries where buyer alliances have been organised, they are, as expected, immediately accused of forming monopolies and they are taken to court — fortunately, without success, and with the result of strengthening the alliances.”

2m38s: “On the publishers’ side there is a very small number of huge publication enterprises with very smart marketing people. They totally dominate the market, produce grotesque profits, and amazingly manage to pretend to be the Good Samaritans of the sciences.”

2m27s: “And there are the tiny [publishers …] tentatively observed by many delegates of the big players, who are letting them play the game, ready to swallow them if an opportunity comes up.”

3m18s: “When you, the small publishers, discuss with the representatives of the big guys, these are most likely very friendly to you. But […] when it comes to discussing system changes, when the arguments get tight, the smiles disappear and the greed begins to gleam.”

3m42s: “You will hear in words, and not implicitly, that the small academic publishers are considered to be just round-off errors, tolerated for another while, irrelevant for the world-wide scientific publishing market, and having no influence at all.”

4m00s: “One big publisher stated: if your country stops subscribing to our journals, science in your country will be set back significantly. I responded […] it is interesting to hear such a threat from a producer of envelopes who does not have any idea of the contents.”

4m39s: “Will the small publishers side with the intentions of the scholars? Or will you try to copy the move towards becoming a packaging industry that exploits the volunteer work of scientists and results financed by public funding?”

5m55: “I do know, though, that the major publishers are verbally agreeing [to low-cost Gold #OpenAccess] , but not acting in this direction all, simply to maintain their huge profit margins.”

6m06s: “In a market economy, no-one can argue against profit maximisation [of barrier-based scholarly publishers]. But one is also allowed to act against it. The danger may be really disruptive, instead of smooth moves in the development of the academic publishing market.”

6:42: “You may not have enjoyed my somewhat unusual words of welcome, but I do hope that you enjoy this year’s APE conference.”

It’s just beautiful to hear someone in such a senior position, given such a platform, using it say so very clearly what we’re all thinking. (And as a side-note: I’m constantly amazed that so many advocates are so clear, emphatic and rhetorically powerful in their second, or sometimes third, language. Humbling.)

As RLUK’s David Prosser noted: “I bet this wasn’t what the conference organisers were expecting. A fabulous, hard-hitting polemic on big publishers #OA.”

 

 


Note. This post is adapted from a thread of tweets that I posted excerpting the video.