In her best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo argues that you should get rid of everything in  your life that doesn’t “spark joy”. I have accepted that I will never achieve Kondo-level simplicity, because too many things spark joy: a brass dinosaur my grandmother gave me when I was a kid, a worn penguin tibia I picked up on a beach in Uruguay, an Oklahoma rose rock, the alligator head Vicki brought me from New Orleans, an armadillo skull I found in the woods once, a sliced geode, an ammonite…the list goes on. Every area I have control over becomes, if not a cabinet of curiosities, at least a semi-organized array of curiosities.

An old box of stuff I unwrapped over the holidays. The human skull and allosaur claw are casts, all the other natural history items are real.

There are a couple of objects in my collection that give me more pleasure than any of the rest. One is a piece of shrapnel from the Sikhote-Alin meteorite – more about that another time, perhaps. The other is a 1.5″ tungsten cube.

I got the tungsten cube because of an answer on Quora to the question, “What is the most beautifully satisfying physics-based desk toy?” As the anonymous author of this particular answer wrote:

Some philistines may not consider this a proper “toy”, but I’ve had one for a year or so and am still crazy about it and have zero regret about purchasing it despite its high cost. It doesn’t do anything other than be way heavier than it seems possible for something that size to be. I think it’s mind-boggling and entertaining just to pick it up, hold it, savor its surreally strong attraction to the center of the earth, and think about gravity, matter, fundamental forces, etc.

The next time I got a nice chunk of fun money, I got the pair of 1.5″ tungsten and aluminum cubes sold by Midwest Tungsten Service. And a couple of years on, I gotta say, that purchase has probably given the best return of enjoyment per dollar of anything I’ve ever bought. For two reasons.

First, there’s the tactile enjoyment of picking up the tungsten cube. It is shockingly heavy. Pure tungsten has a specific gravity of 19.25. This cube is an alloy of 95% tungsten, 3.5% nickel, and 1.5% iron, called MT-18F by Midwest Tungsten. According to the fact sheet provided with the cube, “The addition of these alloying elements improves both the ductility and machinability of these alloys over non-alloyed tungsten, which can be brittle.” The addition of those other elements brings the cube’s density down to 18 g/cm^3. By comparison, steel is 8.05 and lead is 11.35. So even the alloyed cube still has a density more than half again that of lead. The 1.5″ cube has a mass of almost exactly 1 kg.

Even knowing, intellectually, how heavy the tungsten cube is, it’s still a kick in the brainpan every time I pick it up. It feels unreasonably, unnaturally heavy. It’s uncanny, like something out of a comic book, like it’s being pulled downward with the same force I normally associate with strong magnets.

The second reason why the cube is so great is the thoughts that it inspires. Pure tungsten has a melting point of 3422 °C (6192 °F). The W-Ni-Fe alloy, like other tungsten heavy alloys, “will begin to form a liquid phase when heated in excess of ~1450 °C (2642 °F)”, according to the Tungsten Heavy Alloy Design Manual (link). According to this page, most room fires max out at about 1200 °C, and according to this page, the temperatures of most magmas are 700-1300 °C (~1300-2400 °F). It is also extremely hard, with a Vickers hardness of 262 kgf/mm² (about 8.5 Mohs; regular steel is 4-4.5 and hardened steel is 7.5-8). The only harder substances are things like corundum; carbides of silicon, titanium, and tungsten; boron; and diamond.

So, seriously, what is going to destroy this cube? Burn down the house, and it will survive. Toss it into lava or magma, and it will sink to the bottom – even into the upper mantle – and sit comfortably, 150 °C or more below its melting point. If I owned beachfront property it would be cool to put the cube on a pebbly part of the beach and leave it there for a few years and see how – or if – it would erode. I know it can shatter if hit hard enough, but I imagine if it was just rolling around in the surf with some pebbles, the tungsten cube would wear down the pebbles and not vice versa. (It occurs to me that this could be tested with a small cube and a rock tumbler – I’ll let you know if I ever perform that experiment.)

My youngest brother, Ryan, designs drill bits for the oil industry, and then goes out to the drill sites to see how they wear down. His job is basically getting industrial diamond, tungsten carbide, and hardened steel to play well together at 1100 rpm. I wrote to get his profession opinion on the survivability of the tungsten cube.


I’m having a hard time thinking of some natural or accidental process that would destroy it. Volcano, asteroid, and A-bomb are all I’ve come up with. [This was before I’d looked up the temperature of magma.] Like, if it just got left out in the rain and the sun forever, would it corrode? Ever? How long could it be sitting there as a recognizable cube – a century, a millennium, 100,000 years?

Ryan (in an email with permission to cite):

I don’t have much experience with straight tungsten but WC [tungsten carbide] should fare better corrosion wise, it takes some pretty exotic stuff to corrode it. Now cobalt has a melting point of 2700F so if the WC got that hot the cobalt binder would melt, desintering the WC and breaking it down. However that’s way hotter than your average house fire.

Barring any natural disasters, acts of God, or man-made intervention, I would think you could set that thing on the ground somewhere and it would be just fine for a long, long time.

Fun fact #1: Pure tungsten oxidizes in air, so I imagine that’s one of the reasons they added the nickel in the MT-18F.

Fun fact #2: Ni and Co have very similar melting points. [Meaning that my W-Ni-Fe cube will desinter at about the same temp as tungsten carbide, which uses cobalt instead of nickel as the binder.]

My desk at work. Aquilops and sea otter skulls on the left are casts, the ichthyosaur is a 3D print, and everything else is real and mostly collected and prepped by me. That’s the aluminum cube in the back on the far left. The tungsten cube sits on my side of the desk, where I can play with it.

Now, I have a lot of things that I hope will outlive me, including a lot of old books and reprints. And a lot of that stuff is pretty durable, including the aforementioned meteorite chunk. But there is a big difference between holding a century-old monograph and hoping that the people who come after me will care for it, and holding the tungsten cube and knowing that it will most certainly survive for centuries or millennia, unless someone attempts to destroy it, deliberately and with a non-trivial expenditure of effort.

And that’s why I’m writing about the tungsten cube here on what is normally my fossil blog. I am surrounded by objects that represent time – developmental time for bones, geologic time for fossils and minerals, astronomical time for meteorites – but these are almost all natural products that embody the past. The tungsten cube is a human product, and in its sheer durability – and survivability – it embodies the future. It will exist in future iterations of this world that I can’t imagine. That’s a breathtaking thought.

If you’re thinking about getting a chunk of tungsten, I strongly recommend the 1.5″ cube set. A few months after picking it up, I got a 0.5″ cube of the same stuff, just to see what it would be like. It’s heavy for its size, but it’s not heavy enough to be shocking. The visceral reaction is more “huh” than “WOW!!”

It’s worth getting the set because the aluminum cube is also entertaining and it’s worth the small additional outlay (as of this writing, $133 for the 1.5″ tungsten cube alone, and $159 for the pair). The aluminum cube has a mass of 0.15 kg, exactly 15% that of the tungsten cube. I have visitors pick up the aluminum cube first. It’s funny, I guess a lot of folks haven’t had a chance to play with solid chunks of metal firsthand because they’ll pick up the aluminum cube and say, “Wow, that’s heavier than I expected.” At that point I just smile. The tungsten cube blows people away, every time. Heck, it blows me away every time, and I’ve been playing with it for two years. Highly recommended.

For a full line of cubes, spheres, and tops, check out Midwest Tungsten Service (link). Many of their products are also available on Amazon.


Over the years, I’ve accumulated quite a few sauropod-themed mugs, most of them designed by myself and relating to papers that I’ve been involved with. Here are most of them (plus a bonus):

From left to right (and in chronological order):

  1. The Sauroposeidon mug that Matt made back in 2000 or so.
  2. The first one I created myself: an Archbishop mug, showing the posterior dorsal vertebra pair D?8-9 — foolishly, in monochrome.
  3. Xenoposeidon, of course, created in celebration of its publication.
  4. The whole of my dissertation, printed very very small.
  5. The introductory here’s-what-sauropod-necks-are-like illustration from our 2011 paper on why those necks were not sexually selected.

Not pictured: the Brontomerus mug. I made three of these: one each for the three authors of the paper. I’m not sure where mine has gone — I don’t think I’ve seen it for a long time. (If Matt still has his, maybe he can add a photo to this post.)

(Bonus: on the right hand side, the world’s only DRINK TEA YOU MORONS mug. I made it as a gift for my son Matthew, who is a huge fan of Bob The Angry Flower (as am I). It’s based on this this strip.)


I’ve been writing for Sky & Telescope, the American astronomy magazine, for a year now. My first feature article was published last December (details here), my second came out this April (ditto), and my latest is in the current (December 2016) issue, which should be hitting newsstands this week. I’ve also been writing the “Binocular Highlight” column since June.

My latest feature article, “Twelve Steps to Infinity”, is my favorite thing I’ve ever written about astronomy, and maybe my favorite thing I’ve ever written, period.* I’m posting about it here because the concept should be interesting to all students of the past: the speed of light is finite, so when we look out into space, we are also looking back in time. We see the moon as it was 1.28 seconds ago, the sun as it was 8.3 minutes ago, Jupiter anywhere from 33 minutes to over an hour ago, depending on whether we’re on the same side of the sun or not, and Neptune after four hours – at that distance, our 16-light-minute swing around the sun hardly makes a difference. Most of the stars visible to the naked eye are within 2000 light years, which is 2% or less of the diameter of our Milky Way galaxy. With binoculars or a small telescope you can track down numerous external galaxies and see them as they appeared tens of millions of years ago. One of my favorite observations is seeing the light of the quasar 3C 273, which started traveling 2.4 billion years ago, when our single-celled ancestors were gearing up for the Great Oxygenation Event. (If you’d like to replicate that feat yourself, you can get a very capable, “lifetime” telescope for a little over a hundred bucks. I recommend the Orion SkyScanner 100 – see this and this for more information.)


Our place in the Milky Way, from a talk I put together on the same subject.

My new Sky & Tel article doesn’t go nearly that far back – in fact, I don’t even make it out of the Cenozoic. But the concept scales all the way out, so if a particular event in Phanerozoic history is near to your heart, there is probably a star, nebula, cluster, or galaxy whose light left at the right time, which you could observe with binoculars or a small telescope (although the distribution is gappy between half a million and 30 million light years, where there just aren’t that many nearby galaxies). The Messier and Caldwell catalogs are good places to start, and there are hordes of online resources (many funded by your tax dollars by way of NASA) you can use to find a match. If I get really motivated I might post a table of easily-observed celestial objects and their lookback times. In the meantime, if you have a date in mind, leave it in a comment and I’ll find something temporally close for you to go look at.

Lots of people provided assistance and inspiration. Steve Sittig, who runs the Hefner Observatory at the Webb Schools here in Claremont, helped me refine the idea through numerous conversations, and did a trial observing run with me last autumn. Fellow paleontologists Alan Shabel and Thierra Nalley guided me on hominid history (needless to say, any remaining errors are mine). My editor at Sky & Telescope, S.N. Johnson-Roehr, made numerous small improvements, and the S&T art department made the article even more beautiful than I had hoped. Finally, the little plesiadapiforms at the end of the piece are there thanks to Pat Holroyd, who introduced me to them when I was at Berkeley. Many thanks, folks!

* Other contenders: my favorite paleo thing is the RLN paper, and my favorite thing I’ve written about myself is this essay. And that’s quite enough navel-gazing for one post!

tornado debris

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.


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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We adopted a couple of 6-week-old box turtles today.

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They are Three-Toed Box Turtles, Terrapene carolina triunguis, and they are insanely adorable.

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This one seemed oddly familiar…had I encountered it before?

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UPDATE: The last few images here are an homage to Mike’s Gilmore sequence from slide 96 in our 2012 SVPCA talk on Apatosarus minimus (link). I would have linked to it sooner, but I couldn’t find the right blog post. Because there wasn’t one. Memory!

Vicki with book

Remember how my better half, Dr. Vicki Wedel, edited a book about blunt force trauma, called Broken Bones?

If you live in SoCal and you’d like to get a copy, or get your copy signed, then you’re in luck. Vicki will be one of a dozen local authors signing books at the San Bernardino County Museum this coming Sunday, May 18. There will be books for sale if you don’t yet own the titles you want. Noted paleontologist and skeptic Don Prothero will be giving the keynote address and signing copies of his new book, Reality Check. If you’re in the area, come on by. Details here:

SCBM festival of authors 2014

MoO 2013 - pathological rodent teethAnother nice display from the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City (previous MoO posts here and here). Check out the really gnarly ones that are indeed growing right through the bones of the face. That must have sucked.

We’ve covered rodent teeth here a few times before (one, two)–more than is probably right, for a blog ostensibly about sauropod vertebrae. Sherlock Holmes said, “Life is a great chain, the nature of which can be determined by the discovery of a single link.” I’d amend that to, “Life is a great tree, the inherent fascination of which flows through every tiny twig.”

Back when we started SV-POW!, Mike predicted that the technical niche blog was the wave of the future. That prediction does seem to be coming true, albeit more slowly than I thought it would. Nevertheless, if you are susceptible to the inherent fascination of rodent teeth, get yourself over to Ian Corfe’s Tetrapod Teeth & Tales for more geeky goodness.

Now, in a move that will possibly enrage one segment of the audience but hopefully delight another, I am going to forge even further away from the ostensible raison d’être of the blog and talk about monsters. Specifically Cthulhu–in my experience, in the Venn diagram of life, the “interested in paleo” and “interested in Lovecraft” circles overlap almost entirely. Over at my everything-except-paleontology-and-astronomy blog, I’ve been thinking about Lovecraftiana and wrestling with what a Cthulhu idol, such as those described in Lovecraft’s stories, ought to look like. If you’d like to contribute, get on over there and leave a comment. If you send* me a picture (drawing, painting, 3D render, photo of sculpture, whatever) or leave a link, I’ll include it in an upcoming post. Cthulhu fhtagn!

* Send to, please include Cthulhu in the subject line.

Cthulhu sketch 1