Sunday, 31 October 2010

Dinosaurs existed....honest!

Yesterday Washington DC came to a very sensible halt. The whole of the City Centre gridlocked in a very sane way. The tens of thousands of people who came to bring this rationality to DC were all very level-headed and prudent folks. Why this sudden influx to DC? Some may say it was the 'cult of fame', as the TV show hosts/comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert decided that October 30th 2010 would make a good date for rational folks to get together and share a simple idea, of not being afraid. My pile of paperwork from the US Embassy in London positively encourages me to 'experience American culture', like a good citizen, I took heed.

You might think that such a simple message might yield a feeble response from the good people of the United States; and you would be wrong! Hundreds of thousands of rational folks marched on the Capital to answer Stewart's and Colbert's call as to whether the populace were happy about being told they should be afraid....of what. Well, hopefully some of the following images will provide a collective answer to the television hosts. So in the spirit of this 'terrifying event', I will tell its story in pictures, but also in the words of a chap from Blighty, fearful of being alone in a very, very big crowd!

Here the ring-leader of the event Jon Stewart somberly relays the news to the the gathered crows, that he is afraid....very afraid....maybe its cause his autocue is stuck? The sinister towers of the Smithsonian loom frighteningly in the background...what goes on behind these closed doors is a closely guarded secret...some say they procure and store evidence of evolution....scary!

Steve Colbert soon joned the party from his underground bunker, some 3000 feet below the stage....I think the flags were a helpful reminder for anyone who forget they where they were?

The crowds were thicker than a rugby scrum but with more teeth... The mounted Police even kindly left their horse-boxes for folks to climb upon to gain line-of-site to the thoughtful.

Seeing what was going on at the stage was almost might almost be forgiven for thinking the organisers were surprised by how many sane folks were willing to descend upon DC to declare their sanity?

Folks thought long and hard about what they should...or should not (in a few caes) wear to the event. This is one of the few images of 'fancy dress' that might pass the blog filter....given it was the day for Halloween, folks were very much in the spirit to dress-up.

The Museum steps have never looked so crowded! Walking up the steps and turning towards the Capital buildings....more people, as far as the eyes could see. All very happy and enjoying the Autumnal day that was bright, cool and breezy.

This meeting, I am assured, was not a political rally...of this I am sure, as the banners and signs all kind of made sense/ Even a bright red T. rex climbing a Police horse box made sense! I only wish that I had brought a sign...'I am still evolving, help me', or 'Dinosaurs still rule the Earth'....but I felt my role was more one of observer.

After a rousing day of sensible speeches, prudent people and level-headed discussion we all went home...

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Dinosaurs, career dilemmas and dissection

Dinosaurs are officially cool. That's if you believe the 13 year old who emailed about wanting to work with dinosaurs. I get quite a few emails like this and try and reply to them all... sometimes not an easy task when in the field or travelling on the road, as per my last year. The young chap, for my purposes I will call 'Bob', had gotten his mum to email me earlier in the year, to help suggest which subjects he should take to become a palaeontologist down the line. Interestingly, his careers advisor at school suggested two career paths to becoming the said fossil hunter, either Geochemistry or Petroleum Engineering? The former geochemical approach I fully understand, although most courses do not address much in the way of palaeontology, the latter more oily suggestion made not sense at all? If there are any career advisors reading this Blog...yes, you really can do a degree that has a vast amount of palaeontology as content...please read your UCAS book! Failing that, I always recommend a biology or zoology route, as palaeontology is full of folks from this side of the academic gene pool. However, as I usually reply to those who ask, just do what you are best at and most enjoy at school (the two usually coincide), as palaeontology is the ultimate multidisciplinary field that draws upon scientists from physics to biology and from chemistry to computing...not to forget the many artists and writers who contribute vastly to the field. The early over specialization of a mind can often be counterproductive to the development of new ideas. Palaeontology thrives on folks looking at the same old material in very new ways. Particle physics for example...

Dr Uwe Bergmann aligns his Archaeopteryx at SLAC

Four years ago the Manchester Palaeontology Research Group started working with a particle physicist, Dr Uwe Bergmann, at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University (California, USA). The SLAC/Manchester group now consists biologists, avian veterinarian, computer scientists, physicists, geochemists and even, yes you guessed right, a palaeontologist or two! However, without the other disciplines being present, the synchrotron might as well have been a giant science machine (a complicated one) with no instructions. With Uwe Bergman literally driving the experiment and the remainder of us collecting and interpreting results, we could not have completed the work on the Archaeopteryx we publish earlier this year in PNAS. This is typical of the type of research we undertake in our palaeontology research group, one that relies upon collaboration. So back to our friend 'Bob' and his career dilemma...there should be no dilemma at all. Just make sure that in the future, you find a palaeontologist who wants to work with what-ever field you are working within....and before long, like Uwe Bergmann, you will be able to to hold you head-up high at the most esteemed meeting of palaeontologists.

Dr Roy Wogelius (Geochemist) adds a fossil feather to his cap...or should I say, experimental stage!

It is clear that by working out of your own box, in my case palaeontology, you can also learn a few new tricks. This week, in my attempt to learn a new thing or two, I have been starring at a horses rear end! Why? I hear you all ask...I'm back in dissection and the beasties have gotten bigger. My dog has now morphed into a goat and horse.

Brandon and Rachel get hooked on the horses rear end!

My attendance (when possible) at the Penn Vet Gross Anatomy classes has opened my eyes to the complex world of plumbing, electrics, engineering and general goo of animal dissection. I am not a complete stranger to this area, as I have dabbled with Dromaius (Emu) and cut through croc (Alligator mainly), in the search of muscles to apply to our various locomotion models we create for dinosaur locomotion studies (work with Dr Bill Sellers). However, I am utterly gob-smacked by the amount of terminology the vet students have to learn! This is rich, coming from someone working in a field laced with names, terms and technology, but it is the shear amount that these folks have to squeeze into their brains over a relatively short period of time. Respect! I would be lying if I did not admit that I also find this very hard! The key thing I am trying to say; I am still learning. It does not matter if you are choosing subjects to study at school to prepare you for University or studying a horses rear-end to understand something new on the musculoskeletal world...we keep learning....and it does not get any easier!

Monday, 18 October 2010

Dinosaurs, posters, lectures and politics!

The Carnegie Museum was stunning....what can I say. If dinosaurs were still alive, they would come here to die! The displays were worth waiting for...a dinosaur bone-fest from wall to wall. Museum displays so often disappoint, with either too few skeletons, fossils and information, usually replaced with rubber-saurus coupled with animatronic farting noises from the pneumatics driving the beastly reconstructions. Not at the Carnegie, here you come face to face with gorgeous mounts of some of the finest dinosaur skeletons to grace the floors of museums.

Looking down at the gathered SVP delegates gives a good impression of how big these Jurassic beasties really were....and I do not mean the gathered professors! Rarely do you get the chance to walk around and look from above at skeletal again, thumbs-up on the exhibition design! The liberal dosing of fossils in knee-high cases (also a huge benefit for kids coming to fondle their favourite dinosaur) provided an even closer look at either body-parts or complete skeletons from the extensive Carnegie collections.

Here Rex v's Rex....well, some now suggest this was a very plausible scene, with bite marks on the bones of T. rex suggeting some less than friendly back-biting. However, others argue that rough petting might be the cause...just watch their descendants (the birds) in their most amorous moments, when the male often holds the female by the scruff of her neck...but beaks tend not to leave puncture marks!

The placement of mounted skeletons in reconstructed Mesozoic environments does have its followers and its critiques, but for me...just seeing decent mounted skeletons with great interpretation panels (both text and video) works for me. Above the infamous Triceratops looms from the undergrowth, with suitably sprawling forelimbs; nice to see! This horny Cretaceous herbivore would have had difficulty charging-down any attacker, given its strange posture would, at best, allow a badger-like lollop.  However, it was not the debate on gait that had folks talking at the meeting, it was more about the Torosaurus/Triceratops some now suggest these dinosaurs are one of the same. This is a debate that will rage with the ceratophile delegates for some time, as there are at least two opposed camps in this debate. Maybe our find last summer will shed some light on this particular issue, but a shed load of dirt needs to be shifted before we can dare offer our own viewpoint on this horny debate.

The lectures at the SVP meeting were many and diverse, as is always the case. This too was echoed in the poster sessions, of which I had little break from...given we had five to present over the four days of the meeting. The talk I delivered on behalf of the Manchester research group (FTIR Spectroscopy of Soft-Tissue Preservation from the Eocene Green River Formation (Colorado, USA) seemed to go down well.... although I was wading into the vast ocean of inorganic and organic geochemistry; strange waters for any palaeontologist. We (the research group) are currently writing-up the said lecture for publication...oh what fun the slings and arrows of peer review to come!

All said and done, SVP was the usual fun meeting of paleontological minds. A splendid opportunity for folks from all corners of the globe to come together to moot on matters antediluvian and consider our and others place in the vastness of geological time. Next year we shall do the same, albeit in under the bright lights of tinsel-town; no, we are not LA bound, but heading to the desert city of Las Vegas. So farewell Pittsburgh SVP 2010 and Viva Los Dinosaurios 2011!

Friday, 8 October 2010

“Get one for Pittsburgh”….and make it a big one!

SVP translates as the Symposium of Vertebrate Paleontology (as well as the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology), which is the US version of PalAeontology… an ‘A’ was lost on that trans-Atlantic crossing in the distant past. This is the biggest meeting of the year for vertebrate palaeontologists from North America and also from many other corners of the world. When I say big, in European terms…and even British terms (as we do not consider ourselves part of Europe)…it is vast, with over 1000 delegates. A large meeting in the UK might reach the dizzy heights of 300 folks. Last year SVP made the voyage to Blighty and set-up shop at the University of Bristol for the very first UK meeting. The meeting was a big success, especially with many folks from Europe who usually cannot afford a conference fee and a transatlantic flight. At the meeting we get one slot to either lecture for 15 minutes or present a poster to our colleagues (if your abstract is accepted). Or, as in the case of the University of Manchester Palaeo research group…you have a handful of posters and presentations to deliver. All good fun…plus we get to chinwag with friends, colleagues and catch-up on what’s hot and what’ not in our field.

Poster example from North American Paleontological Congress last year!

This years meeting is in the near-by city of Pittsburgh. A city that is carved and defined by two great rivers, the Allegheny and Monongahela, that combine forces there to form the Ohio River. Historically this is ‘Steel City’ for North America, but the industrial bark of the area has long been muted. However, the legacy of the great steel magnets is felt in the world of palaeontology, for here…the multimillionaire Andrew Carnegie, originally from Dunfermline in Scotland, built a great Museum. His roots were very humble, literally a rags to riches tail of, ‘boy moves to US with family, starts working in factory…ultimately owns the City!’, I slightly paraphrased that, but almost on the money. The last twenty years of his life were dedicated to philanthropic endeavours of which folks continue to feel the benefits today, from Libraries to Museums, his impact on learning was international. It is one of Carnegie's museological offspring, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History that is hosting SVP annual meeting this year.

Natural History Museum (London) Diplodocus carnegii cast....
...a very large gift to King Edward VII in 1905

The Carnegie Museum is possibly most famous from its fossil expedition that was instigated by Carnegie asking for the then Director (W. J. Holland) to ‘get the museum a dinosaurs’…which the Director dutifully did…a big one! A few years after the directive, the skeleton of Diplodocus carnegii (Hatcher 1901) was sat in the hallowed halls of the Museum. I am embarrassed to say that I have never set foot on this sacred slab of palaeontological history and am just a LITTLE excited to see a specimen that was cast and sent to key museums in Europe (and Great Britain!). It was a cast of this dinosaur that in 1972 utterly blew a five-year olds mind, as I first walked into the British Museum of Natural History (now re-branded as the Natural History Museum (London)). So, in a little way…the philanthropic tendrils of Andrew Carnegie are still having an influence on science and society today....certainly from a personal perspective. I only wish more folks would ask to ‘go get me a dinosaur’ today.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Gross Matters and much to learn!

Yet again it is the end of another month...time is flying by in my first few weeks in Philadelphia. All I seem to be doing is learning Gross Anatomy (again) with the Vet Students at Penn Vet School...this I am doing to a level of detail that I never thought possible! The muscles of the neck, forelimb, torso, pelvis and hindlimb were mostly recognizable to me, but I swear that mammals manage to fit a few more in than my friends the archosaurs whom I am more familiar with. Each dissection class has delved deeper and deeper into our rather large dog. My dissection colleagues, Art(Arthur), Regina, Rachel and Brandon are focused on the task of learning every flap, foramen, vein, artery, nerve, etc., with great enthusiasm. Given all, bar Brandon, will be practicing as vets at some point...I understand their enthusiasm for knowledge. However, Brandon and I are firmly from the land of paleontology, where the bodies we usually delve into are crunchy, but nonetheless, this first-year PhD student of Peter Dodson is head-first with the rest of the team into the much so, his eyes water on a daily basis (contact lenses and formaldehyde do not mix well)!

I'm contemplating whether or not I should add more images of our dissection to this blog? Any comments on a yay or nay on whether additional images of such a display of canine corpses would be welcome..please let me know. The above image shows the nerves running from the spinal cord of the neck down to the forearm (the brachial plexus). It is quite an education seeing your brachial plexus neatly dissected so you can follow the major trunk of nerves from the next to the arm and then see them disappear (innervate) the muscles. Quite splendid that such an elegant system has evolved in us vertebrates. As we dive into the cardiovascular system, things get even more colorful, courtesy of our double-injected dog, that has satisfyingly siliconed red arteries and blue veins. One might think the vascular network would be easy to follow with the color-coding, but as the major arteries and veins bifurcate, trifurcate and multiply at every turn and organ, I think again on this beautiful network that natural selection has finely honed to the ultimate bowl of spaghetti for us to make sense of.

Today as we worked back from the vast liver in our dog, that is as hard as a chunk of parmesan, we then delved into the stomach and intestinal tract. One can get dizzy tracking arteries and veins as they dive in and out of this visceral soup of organs. If I take one thing from these 'refresher' classes for myself, it is that I have a huge respect for those who teach and those who want to learn the ins and outs of vertebrate Gross Anatomy.