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Posts Tagged ‘paleontology

“The body is our general medium for having a world”*…

Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

The biggest component in any human, filling 61 percent of available space, is oxygen. It may seem a touch counterintuitive that we are almost two-thirds composed of an odorless gas. The reason we are not light and bouncy like a balloon is that the oxygen is mostly bound up with hydrogen (which accounts for another 10 percent of you) to make water — and water, as you will know if you have ever tried to move a wading pool or just walked around in really wet clothes, is surprisingly heavy. It is a little ironic that two of the lightest things in nature, oxygen and hydrogen, when combined form one of the heaviest, but that’s nature for you. Oxygen and hydrogen are also two of the cheaper elements within you. All of your oxygen will set you back just $14 and your hydrogen a little over $26 (assuming you are about the size of Benedict Cumberbatch). Your nitrogen (2.6 percent of you) is a better value still at just forty cents for a body’s worth. But after that it gets pretty expensive.

You need about thirty pounds of carbon, and that will cost you $69,550, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry. (They were using only the most purified forms of everything. The RSC would not make a human with cheap stuff.) Calcium, phosphorus, and potassium, though needed in much smaller amounts, would between them set you back a further $73,800. Most of the rest is even more expensive per unit of volume, but fortunately only needed in microscopic amounts.

Thorium costs over $3,000 per gram but constitutes just 0.0000001 percent of you, so you can buy a body’s worth for thirty-three cents. All the tin you require can be yours for six cents, while zirconium and niobium will cost you just three cents apiece. The 0.000000007 percent of you that is samarium isn’t apparently worth charging for at all. It’s logged in the RSC accounts as costing $0.00.

Of the fifty-nine elements found within us, twenty-four are traditionally known as essential elements, because we really cannot do without them. The rest are something of a mixed bag. Some are clearly beneficial, some may be beneficial but we are not sure in what ways yet, others are neither harmful nor beneficial but are just along for the ride as it were, and a few are just bad news altogether. Cadmium, for instance, is the twenty-third most common element in the body, constituting 0.1 percent of your bulk, but it is seriously toxic. We have it in us not because our body craves it but because it gets into plants from the soil and then into us when we eat the plants. If you are from North America, you probably ingest about eighty micrograms of cadmium a day, and no part of it does you any good at all.

A surprising amount of what goes on at this elemental level is still being worked out. Pluck almost any cell from your body, and it will have a million or more selenium atoms in it, yet until recently nobody had any idea what they were there for. We now know that selenium makes two vital enzymes, deficiency in which has been linked to hypertension, arthritis, anemia, some cancers, and even, possibly, reduced sperm counts. So, clearly it is a good idea to get some selenium inside you (it is found particularly in nuts, whole wheat bread, and fish), but at the same time if you take in too much you can irremediably poison your liver. As with so much in life, getting the balances right is a delicate business.

Altogether, according to the RSC, the full cost of building a new human being, using the obliging Benedict Cumberbatch as a template, would be a very precise $151,578.46. … That said, in 2012 Nova, the long-running science program on PBS, did an exactly equivalent analysis for an episode called ‘Hunting the Elements’ and came up with a figure of $168 for the value of the fundamental components within the human body…

An excerpt from Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants, via the ever-illuminating Delanceyplace.com: “How much, in materials, would it cost to build a human body?

* Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

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As we take our vitamins, we might we might send dynamically-evolved birthday greetings to Stephen Jay Gould; he was born on this date in 1941.  One of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science in his generation (e.g., Ever Since Darwin, The Panda’s Thumb), Gould was a highly-respected academic paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science.  With Niles Eldridge, he developed the theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” an explanation of evolution that suggests (in contrast with the gradualism that was prevalent until then) that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which are interrupted– “punctuated”– by rare instances of branching evolution (c.f., the Burgess Shale).

Scientists have power by virtue of the respect commanded by the discipline… We live with poets and politicians, preachers and philosophers. All have their ways of knowing, and all are valid in their proper domain. The world is too complex and interesting for one way to hold all the answers.

Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

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“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”*…

 

fossil record

In one fell swoop, Robert DePalma may have filled in the gap in the fossil record

 

On August 5, 2013, I received an e-mail from a graduate student named Robert DePalma. I had never met DePalma, but we had corresponded on paleontological matters for years, ever since he had read a novel I’d written that centered on the discovery of a fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex killed by the KT impact. “I have made an incredible and unprecedented discovery,” he wrote me, from a truck stop in Bowman, North Dakota. “It is extremely confidential and only three others know of it at the moment, all of them close colleagues.” He went on, “It is far more unique and far rarer than any simple dinosaur discovery. I would prefer not outlining the details via e-mail, if possible.” He gave me his cell-phone number and a time to call.

I called, and he told me that he had discovered a site like the one I’d imagined in my novel, which contained, among other things, direct victims of the catastrophe. At first, I was skeptical. DePalma was a scientific nobody, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kansas, and he said that he had found the site with no institutional backing and no collaborators. I thought that he was likely exaggerating, or that he might even be crazy. (Paleontology has more than its share of unusual people.) But I was intrigued enough to get on a plane to North Dakota to see for myself…

Douglas Preston recounts what he found: the young paleontologist looks increasingly likely (as other scientists assess his work) to have discovered a record of the most significant event in the history of life on Earth, the missing fossil evidence that recounts the almost-instant extinction of most life on the planet: “The Day the Dinosaurs Died.”

See a second-by-second visualization of the event here.

And for more on the threat that asteroids still present, and how we can protect the Earth from a repeat of that mass extinction, visit the B-612 Foundation.

* Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience

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As we extricate heads from the sand, we might spare a thought for a scientific forebearer of DePalma’s, Edward Drinker Cope; he died on this date in 1897. A paleontologist and comparative anatomist (as well as a noted herpetologist and ichthyologist), Cope led many natural history surveys in the American West for the precursors of the U.S. Geological Survey, making important finds on his trips, including dinosaur discoveries.

220px-Cope_Edward_Drinker_1840-1897 source

 

 

Written by LW

April 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The years teach much the days never know”*…

 

Hoover Dam

On the western flank of the Hoover Dam stands a little-understood monument, commissioned by the US Bureau of Reclamation when construction of the dam began in 01931. The most noticeable parts of this corner of the dam, now known as Monument Plaza, are the massive winged bronze sculptures and central flagpole which are often photographed by visitors. The most amazing feature of this plaza, however, is under their feet as they take those pictures.

The plaza’s terrazzo floor is actually a celestial map that marks the time of the dam’s creation based on the 25,772-year axial precession of the earth…

Hoover diagram

Alexander Rose, Executive director of The Long Now Foundation, on the star map of “Safety Island,” a Hoover Dam feature that has baffled visitors for decades: “The 26,000-Year Astronomical Monument Hidden in Plain Sight.”

See also “Coventry Doom,” the story of a 15th-century “doom mural” (depiction of the Last Judgement) that remained hidden in plain sight for centuries.

* Ralph Waldo Emerson

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As we watch our step, we might send unearthed birthday greetings to Mary Douglas Leakey; she was born on this date in 1913.  An archaeologist and  paleoanthropologist, she made several of the most important fossil finds subsequently interpreted and publicized by her husband, the noted anthropologist Louis Leakey. For every vivid claim made by Louis about the origins of man, the supporting evidence tended to come from Mary’s scrupulous scientific approach.

220px-Mary_Leakey source

 

Written by LW

February 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“We sometimes think, and even like to think, that the two greatest exertions that have influenced mankind, religion and science, have always been historical enemies”*…

 

http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.00267

Methodist Camp Meeting, early 19th century. Source: Library of Congress

The contrast between the cold logic of science and the emotionality of religion is a seemingly unshakable binary today. But back in the early nineteenth century, people saw things very differently. Historian Jeffrey A. Mullins examines the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s.

At that time, Mullins writes, Americans did not see science and religion as opposites. Instead, they were “two aspects of the same universal truth.” And that truth was not based in pure logic. Emotions were a key to human behavior, and controlling and channeling emotions was a job for scientifically- and morally-grounded experts.

This perspective led to a wealth of reformist interventions, from Sunday schools to penitentiaries to graham crackers. Preachers who led religious revivals around the country in the 1830s saw the need for a highly engineered emotional experience…

During the Second Great Awakening of 1830, science and religion were seen as “two aspects of the same universal truth”: “When Science and Religion Were Connected.”

* “We sometimes think, and even like to think, that the two greatest exertions that have influenced mankind, religion and science, have always been historical enemies, intriguing us in opposite directions. But this effort at special identity is loudly false. It is not religion but the church and science that were hostile to each other. And it was rivalry, not contravention. Both were religious. They were two giants fuming at each other over the same ground. Both proclaimed to be the only way to divine revelation” — Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

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As we puzzle over perspective, we might send dynamically-evolved birthday greetings to Stephen Jay Gould; he was born on this date in 1941.  One of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science in his generation (e.g., Ever Since Darwin, The Panda’s Thumb), Gould was a highly-respected academic paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science.  With Niles Eldridge, he developed the theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” an explanation of evolution that suggests (in contrast with the gradualism that was prevalent until then) that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which are interrupted– “punctuated”– by rare instances of branching evolution (c.f., the Burgess Shale).

Scientists have power by virtue of the respect commanded by the discipline… We live with poets and politicians, preachers and philosophers. All have their ways of knowing, and all are valid in their proper domain. The world is too complex and interesting for one way to hold all the answers.

Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

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“In a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder”*…

 

An ancient bear skull sits on the floor of Hoyo Negro, a flooded cave on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

Some 13,000 years ago in what’s now the Yucatán Peninsula, a deep pit inside a cave became the final resting place for a menagerie of exotic animals.

Now, their exquisitely preserved bones, trapped for centuries under water, are offering some of the first solid clues to how large Ice Age beasts were mixing and migrating between North and South America after the Isthmus of Panama connected the two continents.

“We’re going to go from a place with no records to having the best records for a lot of megafauna from Mexico, Central America, and northern South America,” says East Tennessee State University’s Blaine Schubert, who presented the findings this week at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual meeting in Calgary.

The animal bones are also painting a more detailed picture of the strange world inhabited by Naia, an Ice Age girl found in the cave who is the oldest, most complete human skeleton yet discovered in the Americas…

A remarkable discovery sheds new light on the exchange of life that occurred when the Isthmus of Panama rose from the ocean to connect two continents that had been ecologically separate for tens of millions of years: “Ice Age Predators Found Alongside Oldest Human in Americas.”

* “In other studies you go as far as other have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.”   – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein

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As we re-trim our family trees, we might send illuminating birthday greetings to Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden; he was born on this date in 1829.  Trained as a physician (who served with the Union Army during the Civil War), Hayden was a practicing geologist and paleontologist noted for his work in the Badlands in the mid 19th century– it is believed he made the first North American discovery of dinosaur remains (1854)– and for his pioneering surveying expeditions of the Rocky Mountains later in that century, which helped lay the foundation of the U.S. Geological Survey.  Hayden is credited with having the Yellowstone geyser area declared the first national park (1872).

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Written by LW

September 7, 2017 at 1:01 am

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