Friday, 14 December 2012

Dino crisis

Tomorrow is the day of the talk at the Botanics. I've put more time into preparing for this thing than anything since university, but I'm still very nervous. It's quite possible there will only be about eight people there, which will ease the pressure a little bit.

Aside from the pages of text that is mostly lodged in the part of the mind that stores things for a maximum of two weeks, I have some blurry images (that I need to make appear on my laptop screen at the right time), some fossils and some toys. The toys, I think, may be the key. I can hold them up as props, use them to illustrate some important points, wave them around. And if all else fails and things are going badly, I can use them to stage a big dinosaur battle. In the interests of education, of course.

There's scope for audience participation there, too. Always goes down well.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

In the garden


 I've been asked to give a talk on fossils to accompany an art exhibition currently running at the Botanic Gardens. It's by the artist Andy Hope 1930, and called When Dinosaurs Become Modernists. He is fond of superheroes, dinosaurs and the collision of cultural iconography. I went to have a look a couple of weekends ago.

I have to tailor the talk to echo the themes of the exhibition somehow, which means I can't very easily rework talks I've given in the past on the fossil trade, and fossils in general. I thought maybe a way in would be to look at how dinosaurs are effectively the pop stars of palaeontology, and how perhaps that draw can be used to engage people with the less spectacular aspects of the science. There's no denying the appeal of dinosaurs. The artist is happy to place them in the same frame of reference as superheroes - though dinosaurs have the added benefit of having actually lived. Their reality is at the comfortable distance of tens of millions of years, but these icons once walked the same planet we do.

Our perception of dinosaurs is undeniably influenced by popular culture, and probably more than popular culture is influenced by scientific discovery. It'd be nice to have the bulk of our information a little more first-hand, but realistically that's not likely to happen, despite the success of such series as Walking with Dinosaurs and Planet Dinosaur. There's a celebrity pecking order of dinosauria which has changed a little over the years. The hall of fame of twenty years ago - Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops et al - that informed the production of plastic toys and the cast of movies has lost Brontosaurus to the rigours of scientific nomenclature, but gained (a heavily made-over) Velociraptor and Spinosaurus. Entry to the hall of fame requires a prominent role in a blockbuster, not an 80% percent complete spinal column or well-preserved dentition.

Moving away from dinosaurs I think I'll be able to drift into the role of fossils in mythology and folklore. There are plenty of stories there - ammonites as snakestones, belemnites as thunderbolts, the origins of dragons, Nessie, and so on. I'll see what I can find by way of physical example to illustrate a few points. That always helps. Anyway. The talk is at Inverleith House in the Royal Botanic Garden, on Saturday the 15th of December. By then, hopefully, I'll have worked out what I'm going to say.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

On shaky ground

Six Italian seismologists and a civil servant were sentenced to six years in prison yesterday for manslaughter. For failing to predict an earthquake. The L'Aquila quake in April of 2009 killed three hundred and nine people. Could the deaths have been prevented by totally evacuating the city? Probably, but that's not something happens often, even when seismologists advise it.

There was some confusion over governmental announcements in the lead up to the disaster. I wrote about this last year. The team established to assess the risk to the city felt that while there was a threat, the on-going series of smaller seismological events meant there was a smaller chance of a large earthquake. The public announcement of these findings was carried out by a non-geologist - a public official - who interpreted the findings as relatively positive, suggesting a big quake wasn't probable. The city was not evacuated. The earthquake happened and a lot of people died.

That does not mean the geologists were wrong. Just because it happened does not mean the earthquake was statistically likely to happen. So I found it both bizarre and horrifying that the team were charged with manslaughter. All the way along I presumed the international condemnation and ridicule would make someone, somewhere along the line see sense and ensure the matter was dropped. But no. The case went to trial, in a makeshift court beside the ruined city centre (for added dramatic effect?), and geologists were given six years for manslaughter. The unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought. Because their findings were not accurate they were judged to have killed 309 people. It's ridiculous and disgraceful. Who is likely to want to offer their opinion on the likelihood of seismic activity now?

Friday, 19 October 2012

Just deserts

That global warming is currently happening should not be a matter for debate any more. It is happening, and the evidence for that, from many different observable factors, is conclusive. The extent to which human activity is influencing the speed of climate change is a legitimate subject, though. Is there a tipping point? Probably. Have we reached or passed it? We'll have to wait and see. How much of it is 'our fault'? Very difficult to gauge. How much can we do to slow or halt its effects? Personally, I don't know if we as a species are able to curb our excesses to the extent that we can have a dramatic positive effect. In the short period of time we've been 'civilised', we've grown accustomed to having things our own way, and that's a very difficult trend to reverse.

Climate change has happened regularly throughout the planet's long history, and we've only been here for the blink of an eye. A few hundred thousand years of self-awareness, and far, far less with any sense of our position within a wider biological system. But now we're able to have some idea of the timescales involved and look to the past to see what it can tell us about what may lie ahead. Humans have been through an Ice Age before. I'm sure it wasn't very nice, but we made it through without all having to be rescued by mammoths, sloths and sabretooths. Human society as it is now, though, has yet to experience such an all-encompassing meteorological event. We don't know what might happen and we're afraid.

Just to cheer you up, let's look at what happened at the start of the Triassic, 250 million years ago. The mass extinction at the end of the Permian - affectionately known as The Great Dying - had killed off almost everything and left the place looking fairly barren. Volcanoes were getting carried away, spewing lava, ash, smoke and grumpiness all over the planet, and plants - not normally heavily hit by extinction events - began to suffer. Once vegetation began to die off, the carbon dioxide levels rose and this caused temperatures to spiral, making things even worse. A recent study showed that around the equator during this long, hot summer the sea water was around 40°C, ten to fifteen degrees more than now. This the researchers describe as 'lethally hot', so it's probably a bad thing. The Earth in the Early Triassic was nasty. Hot, dry, sandy and empty. It was nice at the poles, apparently, though real estate value there has dipped somewhat since. It took a while - a few million years - for the planet's ecosystems to recover from these unfortunate circumstances. A few million years is a very, very long time to us, so an extinction and resultant greenhouse effect would be a difficult time for humans. If anyone asks if you want a global mass extinction event, say no. It'd be rubbish.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Stan Wood

Stan Wood died yesterday. He was an amazing man and a hero of palaeontology. He wasn't a fossil collector, he was a fossil hunter. His finds over the years have changed the way we understand the colonisation of land, the development of four-legged creatures, the very evolution of life. It's no surprise to anyone who knows him that the new material he has amassed over the past few years should turn out to be his most important yet. His dogged persistence and innate feel for the rocks led him to discovery after discovery where many had given up before him. His loss is a loss to science, and will be felt deeply.

I knew him first by reputation, then for a long time as my boss. It was always interesting working for Stan. I think it's fair to say he was an idiosyncratic man. Field work was hard, physical work and he led by example. It usually involved wading in waist deep water and crushingly heavy rucksacks. He was happy in the field, though, and it was a genuine pleasure to share that with him. Working in the shop, on the other hand, didn't appeal quite so much. He was a reluctant last resort mostly, and it was in everybody's interest to keep it that way. Often, he'd leave the door propped open and go wandering, returning to find bewildered would-be customers standing by the counter with fossil in hand. He did enjoy the conversations with interested customers, though, and there were always plenty of those.

Lastly, though, I was lucky enough to be able to consider him a friend. He did a great deal for me and I'll never forget that. I'll miss him terribly. Goodbye, Stan.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Pointed

Siccar Point is a cliff in Berwickshire, not far from Cockburnspath.

James Hutton, known by many as the 'father of modern geology', noticed an unconformity there that helped convince him of the vast periods of time involved in the formation of rocks. And then, subsequently, to consider the age of the the Earth and other such important things. It's a bit of an iconic spot in geology. Oh, and it turns out James Hutton is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, behind the shop. Didn't know that until recently.

Last week I got an email saying there were plans submitted by a vegetable processing firm to lay a pipeline across the foreshore by Siccar Point to pump all their leftover sprout leaves* into the sea. The deadline for objections to be submitted was that afternoon. Now, I'm pretty lazy by nature, but it struck me as strange that something along those lines would even be considered appropriate for one of our national scientific landmarks. So I looked into it, felt it was a bad idea in general and took the time to register on the Scottish Borders Council site, wait for my confirmatory email and lodge my comment. At the time, there were two objections showing.

Less than a week later, there are currently nearly two hundred. From all over the world - the US, Brazil, Germany, France, Switzerland, Aberdeen, Ireland, The Netherlands, Belgium, and so on. You can see them, by visiting the site and putting in the reference number of the plans - 12/00929. Click on the attached documents and have a browse - it's interesting reading. The depth of feeling is heartening. The process was certainly helped along by the website set up to alert those concerned to the potential development - many of the comments reference the site, certainly. But also the various geological research and general interest groups had spread the word quickly. Quite an impressive rallying call, as befits an international treasure.  I regularly get visitors to the shop asking how to get to Siccar Point. I've even drawn a map to help them...

Anyway. I hope the proposal will at least be looked at very, very carefully. The deadline for comment has been extended to the 23rd of September. The eyes of the geological world will be watching now and it would be careless to allow the integrity and dignity of such an attraction to be marred by an ill-considered industrial development. I'm not against the firm's expansion at all - I just think there has to be an alternative to dumping tons of rubbish into the sea. 



*And/or other such greenery. You can read the finer details in the proposal, and on the savesiccarpoint site..

Monday, 20 August 2012

Watch the birdy!


Charles Darwin wasn't an expert on birds, and we can forgive him that. He collected a huge pile of birds on the Galapagos, but didn't pay them much attention at the time. On his return home, they were passed to an ornithologist friend for identification. The ones that have passed into the scientific history books - later known as Darwin's Finches - aren't actually proper finches, but a group of twelve or more species of fairly dull-looking birds that turned out to be very important in demonstrating some of Darwin's ideas.

What he noticed about these finches is that while at first glance they were fairly similar, their beaks were adapted to suit their individual lifestyles and diets - adaptive radiation - and the species varied from island to island. Darwin noted "one might really fancy that one species had been taken and modified for different ends." This idea was expanded on in 'Origin'.

 A few years ago, a study of one of the group - the excitingly named medium ground finch - showed their beaks had changed noticeably over two decades, as individuals with shorter beaks were better able to cope with competition with the recently arrived large ground finch. Shortbeaks fed better and bred more successfully, meaning... well, you get the idea. Recently, the genome of of Medium (for short) has been determined, and and further adaptation will be carefully tracked at genetic level.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

A man in time

Homo rudolfensis had been known from solitary skull found by Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1972, and has seen a couple of name changes since. On discovery, it was thought the skull belonged to Homo habilis and was maybe 3 million years old, but the differences were significant enough to merit a new name, Pithecanthropus rudolfensis, in 1978. A change of heart shortly after led to its 'promotion' back to the human genus and it became Homo again, while further date testing gave an age of 1.9 million years old.

Part of the assignation problem was that the skull had to be reconstructed from lots of little bone fragments. A 3d jigsaw without all of the pieces and with the picture on the lid long since lost. The first assembly give Rudolf a flat face and a relatively large brain capacity. A computer make-over carried out in 2007 threw in some observations on mammalian facial features that had been made since the initial work and the result was quite a different face. The jaw was now far more pronounced, and the team rather cruelly shrank the brain in accordance with the slope of the jaw. This proved a controversial decision, with a few skullologists ( I made that word up. There might be such a thing as a craniologist, though. Look it up.) rushing to the defence of Rudolf. So, the 2007 lobotomy might not stand.

Recently, more H. rudolfensis material has been found, from three individuals, again in Kenya. These finds support the decision to give it a separate species name, with dental details differing from other species. They date between 1.95 and 1.78 million years old, which makes rudolfensis contemporary with not only Homo habilis, but also H. ergaster and H. erectus. It's been a while since we threw out the old idea of a single lineage of human ancestry leading back to some crouching, grunting apeman, but our understanding of the story is filling out all the time. It's nice to think our ancestors had a few related species kicking around as they considered a long walk North, and I'm sure there are still more finds to be made.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Feathered

The idea that birds and dinosaurs were closely related actually appeared fairly early on - Archaeopteryx had been named in 1861, two years after Darwin had published some book or other, and the first complete specimen was discovered later in the same year. From the same Solnhofen limestone, the little theropod Compsognathus had been known for a couple of years, and Thomas Huxley compared the two, concluding birds were obviously descendants of carnivorous dinosaurs.

There was some opposition to this idea at the time, and thinking on the origins of birds drifted for a while before more evidence was uncovered in the 1960s and 70s. By the end of the 70s the academic world had been convinced and the concept that birds were pretty much dinosaurs began to filter through to general public consciousness. The ash deposit finds at Liaoning in China in the 90s proved a real treasure trove and are still producing a string of important feathered dinosaur discoveries. I was at the Tucson trade fair when National Geographic's Archaeoraptor was bought by The Dinosaur Museum. The magazine were contacted and made a big splash with this supposed dinosaur-bird, which embarrassingly turned out to be two animals pieced together. The story had a happy ending, though, as a trip to the source turned up the other half to one of specimens - Microraptor - which in itself was hugely significant. 


A recent find from the Solnhofen formation, the awkwardly titled Sciurumimus albersdoerferi, is the first theropod found with feathers that's not a close relative of birds. This seems to confirm suspicions that feathers were more than just the privilege of a certain group - coelurosaurs - and were more widely developed amongst theropods in general. There will be a lot more to learn about dinosaur feathers - as more are found, and as the techniques for studying them develop.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Editorial

There's a story on The Guardian's site at the moment that's not of great interest for its content, but is well worth a look for the strange title and sub-heading that have been chosen to introduce the piece.

The article itself is about the recent research which suggests dinosaurs may have been lighter than we'd previously thought. Not really a huge surprise, and obviously our understanding of dinosaur anatomy has always been an on-going process. The title, weirdly, is:

If dinosaurs weren't actually that big, what else don't scientists know?


Firstly, the article doesn't refer to any new perception of their size - just their weight. Dinosaurs were actually 'that big'. If anything, estimations of size have tended to be on the increase recently as soft tissue in the spinal column is factored into the figures a little more heavily. Secondly, there's an awful lot scientists don't know. Is that any surprise? Not to scientists. Moving on to the sub-heading:

News that dinosaurs were not the lumbering beasts that Jurassic Park led us to believe shows that science is not infallible

Again, slightly bizarre, certainly in relation to the actual content of the piece below it. Jurassic Park didn't really hold itself up as a documentary based on cutting edge palaeobiology. It was a blockbuster movie. Besides - a few of the dinosaurs featured weren't really lumbering much of the time. Often it was the jumping, running and biting that made them exciting and the film such a success. And then to the end of the sentence - 'shows that science is not infallible'. There really seems to be an agenda here; science doesn't claim to be infallible. Far from it. Palaeontology is a science, and like other sciences, it's largely dependent on new information, new finds informing a constantly changing (evolving?) best-fit scenario. Mistaken ideas and views from the past are tweaked or discarded as and when we find out more, and the process moves on. The author spends pretty much all of his article discussing the history of dinosaur anatomical theory, so the clash in tone of the body of the piece with its headers is so jarring you have to assume they were written by somebody else. I think I'd be more than a little irritated were I the journalist. Headlines are written in bigger type for a reason; they catch the eye and give the reader some indication of whether or not the text below will be of interest to them. Those that don't bother reading the piece will be left with an unrepresentative and unfair perception of the author.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Rinky dink

The Pink Panther was a diamond, first of all. In the original 1963 film, with Peter Sellars and David Niven, a famous diamond was stolen and Inspector Clouseau had to track down the thief and recover the stone. It was called the Pink Panther because it was a rare pink diamond and it had a flaw that supposedly looked a bit like a panther. Over the opening credits, to Mancini's brilliant theme, a dancing cartoon Pink Panther got his big break. The cartoons followed when the film company executives loved the intro and commissioned an animated short The Pink Phink, which in turn won an Oscar in 1964. More followed, thankfully.

I've moved away from the subject of diamonds a little here. Point was that there was a pink diamond up for auction today, by Christie's in Hong Kong. It's called Martian Pink, named by an American jeweller, Harry Winston, in the 70s, who cut it in honour of a Martian satellite being launched at the time. Pink isn't the rarest colour for diamonds, but along with blue they are among the most valuable gemstones in the world. The pink colour is caused by flaws in the crystal structure, rather than in some cases where the presence of trace amounts of other elements  - blue is due to boron, yellow to nitrogen.

Estimates for today's sale varied between $8-12million, but a pink diamond about twice the size sold in 2010 for £29m, so it might go a little higher than the estimate. I don't have any pink diamonds.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Live forever

Good news! We've been given a reprieve. All those predictions of the world ending later this year because one particular Mayan calendar ran out of space will have to be revised. A Mayan city in Guatemala has thrown up a new calendar. stretching a few thousand years into the future, so we're going to be alright.  For quite some time. No need to sell all your furniture and finally tell your boss what you think of his wacky ties.

Perhaps 'new' calendar isn't quite right. Let's go with 'another' calendar. There were a lot of Mayans over a very long time. Lots of houses with calendar space on the wall. Lots of birthdays to remember. Maybe we have just been unlucky with the order in which we’ve found the calendars. If we’d found this guy’s calendar first, we’d have saved a lot of worry and lunatic internet dribble.

However - to cheer up the presumably disappointed doomsayers - an idea. Why not predict the End of the World every year? Most of our calendars finish in December, so let’s have a Doomsday confidently scrawled on the calendar, in red marker pen, each and every December. Then, eventually, somebody may get it right, and we can all be pleased for them in what little time we have left, as the lava rolls menacingly towards our doorstep, the frogs shower from the sky and people start to tire of tedious reality tv shows.

I do understand the fascination with armageddon and all things apocalyptic. It's exciting. It's like being interested in dinosaurs and monsters. But there are always people predicting the end of the world. Always. I may as well make my own guess. I'm going to go for... 5 billion years, when the sun is supposed to go Red Giant. If there is some form of sentient being around at that point, they can check my Facebook timeline and nod sagely to each other. 'That fossil guy was right. Let's sell our furniture.'

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Mini mammoths

In 1904, a famous Natural History Museum collector, Dorothea Bate, collected some teeth from a site in Crete. They were thought to be from a dwarf species of the straight-tusked dwarf elephant genus Palaeoloxodon. The ancestor of the genus, P.antiquus, was a monster, twelve feet tall, but spawned a number of dwarf species dotted around Mediterranean islands. Fossils have been found on Sardinia, Malta, Corsica and Cyprus. The teeth were looked at again recently and a team went out to Crete in search of new material.

It was a successful trip - more fossils were found and the researchers discovered the teeth had belonged to a mammoth rather than its elephant cousin. Mammuthus creticus, a dwarf mammoth - the dwarf bit was correct -  is thought to have evolved from Mammuthus meridionalis, which was trampling around Europe between 2.5 and 0.8 million years ago, or even M.rumanus, an earlier beast. This means the animals might have reached Crete as early as 3.5 million years ago. Maybe on a pedalo.

Island dwarfism is a common phenomenon. Animals have frequently found themselves an isolated new home and shrunk to fit their surroundings. Elephant families have made a habit of it. Aside from all the Mediterranean Palaeoloxodons, dwarf mammoths have been found on the Californian Channel Islands, and Saint Paul Island, while mini-Stegodons have been found on Timor and Flores. The last of the mammoths thought to have lived were not quite a dwarf species, but had shrunk somewhat. They were living on the Siberian Wrangel Island as recently as 4,000 years ago. The island became separated from the mainland around 12,000 years ago, and the native Mammuthus primigenius population gradually got all midgety.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Pelted

A very long time ago, when our planet was young, it was hammered by rocks. Lots of huge rocks, for ages. Not a particularly enjoyable experience, you'd imagine, but character-forming, like camping. This prolonged period of galactic stoning has a name - The Late Heavy Bombardment. Seems a very long time ago for something to be called 'late', but it's considered late in the time frame of the formation of the solar system's planets. The Heavy Bombardment part you get, I'm sure.


Until recently, the bulk of the evidence for this event (if you can call something that lasted hundreds of millions of years an event - cricket seems to last hundreds of millions of years and that's called a game. Oh no. I've ended a sentence within parentheses. What's the correct way to get back into the sentence outside? Let's just ignore all this bit and carry on.) has come from collected lunar material. Rocks sampled on Apollo missions show a huge number of big impacts happened beginning about 4.1 billion years ago - some 427 million years after it was knocked from Earth and 'born'. If the moon was getting pounded, then Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury were most likely getting the same treatment. It had been thought the bombardment continued until 3.7 billion years ago, but new clues have been found in terrestrial rocks which would suggest the brutality went on for as much as a couple of billion years.


Impactite horizons with tiny glassy beads - impact spherules - from large scale landings have been found from as 'recently' as 1.8 billion years ago. Large scale landings meaning really large in some cases - perhaps up to 70km across. Researchers think these show there's a case for an extension of the Late Heavy Bombardment, perhaps with a gradual decline in falls rather than a (relatively) sudden end. A complicating factor here, certainly with the earlier model, is the nature of the sampling. Although there were a few lunar landings, and a total of 380kg of rocks returned, the sample area isn't really a large percentage of the moon's surface area. We can't claim to have extensively explored the moon. Maybe other areas would/will show a different pattern of impact dates. In any case, we can be glad it's over. For now. 

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Graphene is the new black

Graphite may be diamond's ugly, slimy cousin, but it has been useful for a long time. Pencils, batteries, brake and crucible linings among other things. It's currently experiencing a considerable profile boost, though, as more and more potential applications are found for graphene. Graphene - single-atom-thick honeycomb-patterned sheets of graphite - was described in theory in 1947, and has been physically created since the 1970s, but it didn't really come into public consciousness until work done in 2004 by a Manchester University team including Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov. This pair won a Nobel prize for their research and since then graphene has been big news.


So. Why the fuss? It's incredibly strong, for one thing. Imagine a sheet of atoms you can pick up. It's very thin, of course, but it's bendy, stretchy and stiff. Most importantly, perhaps, it is the best conductor of electricity ever found. And that means it's going to be astoundingly important, most likely. Most commercial uses are still in the early stages of development, but there will be a lot of them. Computer circuitry, flexible/foldable media screens, ambient heat batteries, transparent aircraft*, solar panels, hydrogen storage for car fuel, distilling alcohol, power-generating hull coatings... All sorts. 


As these ideas reach fruition and make it to the stage of practical application the demand for graphite will rise astronomically. Nearly 80% of the world's graphite is produced by China. Lucky them. I have some little chunks from Sri Lanka that have never really been a big seller. Maybe I should hold on to them for the moment.


*I know, right?

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

We fear change

An American lady has picked a piece of Scottish amethyst, for a friend who has an interest in rocks. I write the label, wrap it and hand it to her.

'That's £4.50, please.'

She gets out a ten pound note and examines it.

'Do you do change, like Americans?
'Um. Yes. How would you like it?'
'Do you have, like, 10c, 20c and stuff?'
'I can give you a five pound note, pound coins, 50 pence, tens, twenties, however you'd prefer.'
'Doesn't matter. So is this a 50c?'
'Yes, that's 50p. And this is a five pound note.'
'Okay, thank you.'
'You're welcome.'

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Drawn to life

I read an article this morning about the reconstruction of an unusual raptor by a palaeoartist using Photoshop. Palaeoart is quite a specialist field. Although it has a lengthy history, it's still not really a term many are familiar with. Basically, as you may have guessed from the word, it's just the artistic representation of fossil material and reconstructions of plants and animals from fossil material. This can be problematic. The fleshing out of bones, positioning of limbs, fins, spacing of vertebrae and so on can all affect the final look of a reconstructed animal dramatically. Then there's colour and pattern. And the knowledge that if you don't take in advice and opinion from those with a current, working knowledge of the species, you're likely to get a phone call from a disgruntled fanboy. 'Hey - why have you painted the Obscurosaurus's brow ridge extending only two centimetres past its orbit? New findings show it went on for at least 4cm.'

Clearly it has become easier, gradually, as new finds, new technologies and new techniques have given us far more insight into the anatomies of things long dead. The huge dinosaur models of Crystal Palace have a special place in the history of popular palaeontology, but it's clear now that our understanding of the animals has come a long way since they were made in the the mid 1800s by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. The sculptor had the best help available at the time in Richard Owen, but the depiction of Iguanodon on all-fours, for example, dates the models to the point of making them scientific anachromisms. Dinosaur dinosaurs.

A prominent figure in the history of palaeoart is Charles R. Knight. You may find his depictions of prehistoric life familiar, as his murals have decorated museums and zoos, his paintings fill dinosaur books and his work often featured in National Geographic. A book about his life was published recently - Charles R. Knight - The artist who saw through time. He was working though the first half of the 1900s, and often from necessity - he was painting animals known from little fossil material - there is some considerable speculation involved. Nowadays, that speculation doesn't really cut it. Artists working in the field now need to keep abreast of recent developments in the understanding of their subjects to ensure anatomical accuracy. Museums and scientific publications often commission palaeoartists to reconstruct long-dead animals for exhibits or papers and it's more important than ever to get it as right as possible. Images don't take long to make their way around the world these days, and it's a vital tool in the communication and popularisation of science.

When Robert Nicholls was painting the shop's logo shark, Akmonistion, for me I remember how keen he was to check the details. A lot of research goes into this work, alongside the artistic ability required. It's an impressive mixture of skills. I'm looking forward to a book about palaeoartists due out in September - Robert is featured in it, alongside his picture of the Mr Wood's Fossils shark.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Laser tag

Since the Leonardo diCaprio film, and to a lesser extent Naomi Campbell's bizarre turn as a star witness in the Charles Taylor trial, many people have now heard of blood diamonds. Put simply, they are diamonds from war-torn regions which are used to finance military groups and perpetuate the violence. Often they are collected using what's essentially slave labour in concentration camp conditions. They're a bad thing. It's not just diamonds, though. Other gemstones and mineral resources are similarly exploited for nefarious ends.

The diamond trade has attempted to address the issue as best it can, tracing origins of stones where possible. Prohibiting sources of dubious nature and implementing national embargoes where necessary. It's worked, to some extent, but any help is welcome. The high-profile link to such misery does nothing to help business, after all. So - the developing ability to determine a stone's source locality is good news. In National Geographic this month is an article on a Texan company, Materialytics, who fire a laser at a stone and read the spectrum of light produced to get a locality-specific result. They can be 95% certain of where a diamond came from, for example - the mine, not just the country. They're still in the process of building their database, but this has the potential to be an effective weapon in the war on... well... war? Sort of.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Wood filler

Stan Wood has made his name in the world of palaeontology by finding fossils where people think he won't. Going back to sites thought long-exhausted, doggedly hunting for the 'right' rocks in places where others may have given up. Wading out to waist-deep water before beginning to dig. For twenty years, Stan was convinced there were fossils in the Scottish Borders that could help plug Romer's Gap. Eventually, in 2008, he began to find them. Not much of a surprise for those that know him, the stubborn old goat.

 The material Stan has dug out of a few Borders site in the past few years shows a range that suggests a relatively healthy biodiversity existed at a time when it had been thought atmospheric oxygen levels and the after-effects of the Devonian extinctions had left (at least marine) life reeling a little. The tetrapods at the end of the Devonian were not terrestrial in general, but by the end of the Gap, 345 million years ago, they had made a successful colonisation of land. The positioning of Romer's Gap in the fossil record meant their invasion of terra firma has been hidden from us.

Rather than accepting the idea that there simply wasn't much to find, Stan went out and found something. The exhibit, on at the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street in Edinburgh until the 29th of April, shows a millipede, plants, fish, a eurypterid and some amphibian bones. The star, however, has got to be Ribbo. Yet to receive its full scientific name, the nickname is due to its sturdy ribs. It's in a bit of a mess, disarticulated and a little scattered, but Mike Coates' reconstruction, right, shows how the animal may have looked in life. Probably a little less yellow.

The material isn't the most aesthetic, but its contribution to science is enormous and it will be heavily studied to squeeze as much information from the 350 million year-old limestone as possible. The University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge has more material from the sites, but I'm glad Ribbo has been housed in the same museum as Lizzie. Seems right, somehow.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Mind the gap

The start of the Carboniferous, about 360 million years ago, was an important evolutionary period. In the oceans, there were some bizarre sharks, including the shop's logo, Akomonistion. Huge rhizodonts swam the rivers and eurypterids were in their prime. On land, though, things seem to be relatively quiet.

Amphibians were established but reptiles had yet to show up, and it's the development of the tetrapods that's so important. There isn't much fossil material thrown up by this period. In fact, there's so little that the first fifteen million years of the Carboniferous, from 360mya to 345mya, have a name - Romer's Gap. Alfred Romer, an American palaeontologist, first described this puzzling gap in the fossil record, wondering if there was particular reason or set of circumstances behind the missing information. Geochemical analysis of the rocks of that time suggest the lack of fossils may be the result of a period of low atmospheric oxygen, which would not promote the development of terrestrial animals, but the hangover of an extinction event usually needs more than a couple of aspirin to shake off, too.

Stan Wood has already contributed hugely significant finds from the East Kirkton quarry to help fill the gap, in Westlothiana and others, but tomorrow sees the opening of an exhibition of his recent finds which may shed some more light on the gap. The material will go on public display tomorrow at the National Museum on Chambers Street and the associated scientific paper will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Stan looks to have come up with the goods once again.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Al dente

Studying the skeletal structure of an animal can give a reasonable idea of how its overlying musculature would have been attached, and often more detailed information such as muscle mass can be estimated. Results aren't always fully testable, however, and direct comparison is difficult. As such, interpretation is subjective.

The Tyrannosaurus rex could bite very, very hard. That's not particularly subjective, within our understanding. I mean - there might well be enormous monsters out there somewhere that crack planets with a bite. But we don't know about those as yet. That T. rex had mighty jaws isn't really headline news, but an anatomical study at Liverpool University does estimate the power of its bite at considerably more than previous studies suggested - they say four times more. That seems a surprising leap. The articles in the press focus - naturally - on the headline topic of bite power, but the actual content of the research goes a bit further, looking at the development of feeding habits and diet of the animal as it matured. In the tests, comparisons were made with the bites of humans, Allosaurus and the Nile crocodile. The team claim the croc as the current living holder of the 'World's most powerful bite' title - for terrestrial animals, at least. This claim would seem up for debate to some extent - a quick search finds similar claims for the American alligator and even for hyenas.

It's a shame only one other dinosaur was included in the tests. Allosaurus was a considerably smaller animal and while the test figures were scaled up to equivalent adult T. rex size, there's potential for error in that process. It'd have been nice to have the results for other big therapods to compare, too - Giganotosaurus, Carcharodontsaurus and Spinosaurus, for example. And the Great White's scary great aunt - Carcharocles megalodon. No point saying there's a big difference between aquatic and terrestrial animals. The public want to know.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Great outdoors

Now and then there will be a stream of students looking for hand lenses. This means a field trip. Geology field trips have to be to cold, wet, windy places - there is some secret law about this. There is usually one trip to a hot, sunny place just to remind you that you could have been a geography student and spent your trips in Malta, Italy and Greece. Geologists are obliged to go to Scotland, Iceland and Siberia. Or a bleak moorland. Bleak moorlands with rocky outcrops, of course. And swamp.

An important part of my geology degree was the mapping project. So important, actually, that it should have capitals: The Mapping Project. For this you were given free rein. Get funding and you can go wherever you like. St Lucia. Peru. Tanzania. Interesting, sunny places. I picked Durness, on the North coast of Scotland. I can't remember why. Probably the funding thing.

A friend decided to pick an area adjacent to mine so we could share accommodation. This accommodation, on our departmental budget of 76p a day (approximately), turned out to be a caravan in Mrs Campbell's garden. Actually getting to Durness meant a train journey part of the way, followed by a ride in the post bus to the town. Our instructions took us East of the town, past fields of sheep and a tiny petrol station to Mrs Campbell's and our temporary home. It wasn't a tiny caravan and we started out with a bedroom each, though my friend felt it was better, for our mutual benefit, to give over his room to the containment of his walking boots and their associated stench. We had a radio, a toaster, two rings on the hob and a tiny oven. We were here for 6 weeks and we had to make a map. Difficult to know where to start.

The obvious thing was to go and see if there was a pub.

(I'll come back to this.)

Monday, 13 February 2012

Temperature's rising

If there's one thing that brings the militant atheist in me to the fore it's the uncomfortable mix of religion and politics. Well, okay there are a few more than one thing, but I do try to keep that particular side of me tucked away. Sometimes, though, it's like the Hulk. Someone mentions a new US bill asking that Intelligent Design be given equal educational billing to evolution and my skin turns bright green, most of my clothes rip off and my trousers turn purple.

So everyone ran off screaming when I saw there are six bills along these lines being put before US state legislature already this year. And worse. Two prominent bodies of the willfully ignorant are ganging together; forming a giant angry mob. Pitchforks and spittle-flecked, rage-filled faces pointed at things they don't want to believe in. 'Scientific controversies', they say. Deniers of both evolution and global warming have teamed up to pressure their government. To demand that the way they see things be considered as valid as the way the overwhelming majority of people who have made a career of studying these certain things see them. Well, it's not valid. They're wrong. Demonstrably wrong. And that should not be passed on to future generations in school classrooms. You can't give an equal platform for these alternative views. You can't teach schoolchildren an alternative opinion to reality. There isn't just one alternative to reality, anyway. There are an infinite number - make one up.

Of course there are some scientifically qualified people in the world who hold views that would seem to support Intelligent Design. There are a great many of people in the world and I'd be very surprised if there weren't a few scientists who choose to believe otherwise. But the point is there are only a very few. Usually it doesn't take much digging to find an ulterior motive for their thinking, too. I have yet to hear of a biologist or geologist who doubts evolution and isn't religious. Most religious people tend to have no problem believing in evolution and most I've discussed it with see ID and old-fashioned Creationism as harmful to the integrity of their faith. This isn't some paradigm shift being championed by a handful of foresighted geniuses. These people want a return to an old way of thinking, a step back from knowledge.

Climate change has a little more grey to it. There's certainly a sliding scale of opinion on the level of humanity's contribution to the present temperature rise, but there's no doubt it is rising. Oil companies have shown a reluctance to accept this, as fuel austerity measures and alternative solutions are not really in their interests. And oil companies have a great deal of money. Pair this money up with the passion of the ID zealot and we seem to have arrived at a new mutant breed of anti-science bill. Worrying, but you'd hope there would be the sense to discard this sort of nonsense as soon as it gets to any form of political platform. After all, the clear division of religion and politics was a founding principle of the US, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out:

'Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.'


Denial of the obvious has no place in school curricula. The elevation of contrasting ideas to the science class would lend them an undeserving credence and burden a generation with misinformation. 'Teach the controversy' is the catchphrase. Teach the facts, I'd say. Disgraceful this is still an issue.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Evening Redness in the West

Tucson time again. I leave tomorrow for around two weeks, and the shop will be in capable hands. Though Riley is due to begin an archaeological contract in Turkey soon, he postponed his departure until I return from the States, so he'll be covering the majority of the time I'm away. From then, Kristen will be taking over the regular Saturday position. She'll have her first full day on Wednesday this week, and I'm sure she'll be great.

Normally, I'll have a few days in New York with friends before reaching Arizona, but this time I'm meeting them afterwards in New Orleans. Very much looking forward to that part, but it does mean I'll have to get over my jet-lag while I'm getting through the most important part of the trip. Usually, as soon as I've dumped my bags at the hotel I'm off to see the guys I buy my Green River fish from. I'm always worried I'll be beaten to the bulk of the better material by someone who gets there a little earlier, so it's a relief once that bit's over. Next is usually onto the Utah trilobites, for similar reasons. It's difficult to know exactly how to time the trip. Arrive too soon and there will be few dealers set up - you can end twiddling your thumbs a little. Too late and the prime stuff has gone. Wait until near the end and you can get some good bargains as dealers don't want to lug all their unsold rocks home again and would rather dump them for anything approaching a reasonable sum. Bargains are great, obviously, but I'm more concerned with quality.

This will be my 12th Tucson trip, I think, and it's fairly routine by now, but it's always good to see everyone. Friends from all over the world come together for a couple of weeks, and the social side of it is by far the most appealing. And the sun. The sun is good, too.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Space rock talk

Every year, the The Royal Society awards the Michael Faraday Prize to someone they feel has contributed a significant amount to society's understanding of science. For the communication of often complicated concepts in simplified and comprehensible terms. Making it so that even I can understand it, is what I'm getting at... Anyway. Winners are asked to give a lecture in January. The prize was awarded to Colin Pillinger in 2011, and he gives his lecture today. It's being broadcast live from 5.30pm, but will be available to watch in the Royal Society archives in a couple of days.

Colin Pillinger lead the Beagle 2 project to send an exploration vehicle to Mars. It didn't work. That's not unusual for Mars missions, though; it's a very long way away, after all. The idea, and it was a noble one, was to search for signs of life. So basically, Colin Pillinger is a Martian hunter - reason enough to listen to his lecture today. He's had an interesting career and his contribution to the promotion and popularisation of science is undeniable, so he's a very worthy winner.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

All in a lava

The extinction event at the end of the Permian is known as The Great Dying. Sounds sad, doesn't it? It is - lots of things died. If the saying about tragedy plus distance making comedy is true, it ought to be really funny, given it happened around 252 million years ago. It's not, though. In the sea, 96% of species went down the plughole, while 70% of land-based vertebrate creatures became even more land-based. In the space of about 200,000 years an estimated 83% of all the planet's genera were gone.

As with many such situations, working out exactly what happened is a long, on-going process but there is plenty evidence to suggest that a main cause may have been an enormous bout of volcanic activity. The Siberian Traps are a massive span of flood basalts, which were spewed out over a long period of time and covered up to 2 million square kilometers, or more, depending on your sources. This happened immediately before and during the extinction event, and threw inordinate amounts of nasty stuff up into the air with predictably dire consequences. The reflection of solar light and heat, the greenhouse effect of the gases in the atmosphere on the ozone layer, huge CO2 levels causing climate change, acid rain caused by the sulphur and, well, everything just being so dirty. All of these things are essentially bad for anything just trying to get by. Disruption of photosynthesis leads to a domino effect on the food chain, and adverse environmental conditions for a protracted period led to extinction on a scale not seen before or since.

Whether the Traps on their own were enough to cause all the destruction is a matter for debate. Although the K-T event that snuffed out the dinosaurs is heavily associated with a meteorite impact, there was more going on at the time. The Deccan Traps in India, another huge volcanic series, are considered an important factor. Inevitable comparisons prompted the search for a corresponding meteorite for the Great Dying. So far, though, a suitable culprit has not been found and it's not likely signs of a crater would have survived this long in any recognisable state. It's possible, though, that a series of problems was triggered by the formation of the Traps which combined in effect to compound the difficulties life on Earth was facing. Methane released by the Siberian eruptions led to a severe episode of global warming, damaging enough in itself, but also subsequent oceanic anoxia as a dropping temperature differential prevented adequate circulation of oxygen within the waters. Chain reactions...

It's reassuring to place these occasions in the context of geological time. We're not likely to see volcanic activity on the scale of the Siberian or Deccan Traps. If we do, though, it'll be pretty bad news. Even panic buying rice and beans may not be enough to save us.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Missing Skull-Bones: Hidden Sea Dragon - A guest post by Jeff Liston.

Missing Skull-Bones: Hidden Sea Dragon – the true story of the Speeton Clay ichthyosaur
 or ‘Why really important specimens sometimes disappear for fifty years’.

This week, PLoS ONE published a paper which redrew the map as far as our understanding of ichthyosaur extinctions is concerned.  The news headline ‘No major ichthyosaur extinction at the end of the Jurassic after all’ might best summarise the conclusions.  Or (perhaps less accessibly) ‘Ophthalmosaurines alive and well and living in the Hauterivian of North Yorkshire’.  But some might find it odd that the holotype featured was from a specimen collected over fifty years ago from near Scarborough: if this was so special, why did noone pick up on it before?  Here is the answer – and sadly it is far from an atypical story.

The animal in question was found in the nineteen fifties by a group of postgrads at Hull University Geology Department.  At weekends they would hop on a train and go look for fossils. This particular weekend in Spring 1958, they were fossil-hunting in the Speeton Clay (Lower Cretaceous), and found an ichthyosaur.  Over succeeding weekends, they went back and recovered it, piece by piece, bringing it to Hull University, where it sat in their collections for some years, waiting for an ichthyosaur worker to look at it.  Enter Robert Appleby, Britain’s premier ichthyosaur worker in the fifties, sixties and early seventies, who borrowed some of the material (mainly skull, with some representative vertebral centra), intending to include it in the Handbuch der Palaoherpetologie, for which he was to do the ichthyosaur volume.

Then things became a little complicated. Margaret Thatcher’s government initiated the Earth Sciences Review (see The Earth Sciences Review Twenty Years On) at the end of the nineteen eighties, with the aim of saving money by cutting geology departments.  Despite Hull’s distinguished record as a department (and possibly due to a slightly biased assessment by a ‘hard rock’ worker from Oxford University), it was targeted for closure, and homes needed to be found for the collections housed by the department.  By this stage, one of the 1958 postgrads – Keith Ingham – was Curator of Palaeontology at the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow.  He went back to Hull to pick up his research collections (he had become a world-renowned trilobite worker in the interim), and the Head of Department, John Neale, helped him recover his research material for transferral to the Hunterian.  In the process, the fate of the Speeton Clay ichthyosaur was raised – was it just going to be thrown in a skip? - and John made it clear that Keith, as one of the discoverers, could transfer that specimen as well.  Cue the ignominious transfer of an ichthyosaur to the back of a landrover, and a few hours later the specimen arrived in Glasgow.

Sadly, once there, it suffered from a similar problem to the one it had suffered in Hull: by the time I arrived at the Hunterian about 5 years later (in 1993), there had been no vertebrate specialists employed by the Museum for over eighty years, and the collection had fallen into some disarray.  As I sorted through the collections over the next ten to fifteen years, it became clear that the Speeton Clay animal, as an extremely rare Early Cretaceous ichthyosaur, was off everyone’s radar, and needed to be catalogued, numbered, described and published before I left.  Firstly, I had to recover the bones on loan to Robert Appleby – no mean feat, as he had retired from Cardiff University in the nineteen eighties to finish the Handbuch der Palaoherpetologie, and it was difficult to track down anyone who knew where he now was living.  Some months of research later, I had a telephone number. “Are you finished with the material?” “Not quite yet – I would hope to be soon….” I took to phoning Robert every 6 months, to encourage him to finish with the material as soon as possible.  Until one week in February 2004 when I phoned, to discover from his wife Valerie that he had died a few days earlier on the 8th.

Very soon after, I travelled down to recover the material that he had had on loan, and also received a request from Valerie to help with the posthumous publication of a variety of materials that Robert had been working on – most of which I am hoping to see enter publication this year.  Within the 500+ page monograph that he had completed the first draft of only a couple of days before he died, was a description of the Speeton animal within a general taxonomic review of the genus Platypterygius.  Having recovered the skull material on loan, and seeing how complete the specimen was, made me even more determined to see the specimen published – this was clearly something exceptional, which could easily get lost amongst the collections again.  I could write it up myself, but I knew that with my knowledge of ichthyosaurs being restricted to one genus – Ophthalmosaurus – I was unlikely to do justice to the specimen, and needed an ichthyosaur worker (thin on the ground these days) to do the job for me.  I started looking for a candidate, but in the meantime I gave the job of auditing the specimen to an Honours zoology student of mine, Jessica Tainsh.  After she completed the initial listing of elements present, I got her to incorporate the specimen into an existing character data set, in case a useful cladistic analysis might be possible.  One or two characters leapt straight out, that seemed to reinforce my impression that this was special – in particular a small peg-like structure on the basioccipital, a fairly rare character in ichthyosaurs.  By this time, I had seen Valentin Fischer present on Early Cretaceous ichthyosaurs at the European Association of Vertebrate Palaeontologists meeting in Aix-en-Provence in June 2010, and I knew that this was the person to describe the Speeton Clay ichthyosaur, as he had the breadth to place it in overall context and really do the job properly.  I began to hassle him – when was he coming to Glasgow to see the specimen?  By the end of 2010, I knew that I was going to be leaving the Hunterian the following year, and increased the pressure on him, sending him Jessica’s Honours project report through, and making it clear that he was unlikely to get the access that he required after I had left the Hunterian (they were already overstretched, and unlikely to employ a palaeontologist after I had left).  Eventually, he agreed to come in June 2011.

Valentin turned up at the Hunterian that week with his Apple laptop and expanding dataset – he had just finished a draft of a paper on an animal from Cremlingen, which a couple of ichthyosaur workers including Michael Maisch and Judith Pardo PĂ©rez had also looked at with a view to writing up.  Within twenty minutes of looking at the Speeton Clay specimen, he said “Jeff, I think this is the same animal as in Cremlingen”.  With a ruthlessness that I am not entirely proud of, I asked him what he estimated the size of each animal to be – and he made clear that the German specimen was much smaller than the Speeton animal.  I smiled sweetly at him (it’s possible) and said “Well, it is clear that the German animal cannot be the type specimen, as it might be a juvenile.”  (The rationale is that characters that are juvenile might not be present in the adult form, so are not the safest for defining a taxon.) Valentin agreed – and that afternoon we started to look at possible names.  There were a number of striking adaptations throughout the skeleton that appeared to operate together to make the axial skeleton quite inflexible – a very robust rear of the skull; a remarkably solid scapula; an undulating perimeter to the vertebral centra which I had naively interpreted as preservation distortion, was actually a beautiful ‘locking’ mechanism to restrict axial flexion – and the concept of the ‘rigid swimmer’ was born.  In a nicely circular way, Keith Ingham (although retired from the Hunterian some ten years earlier) was very into the grammar and construction of fossil names, so he was my first port of call for suggestions as to how to translate the concept of ‘rigid swimmer’ into Greek.  While Valentin continued to score the specimen for characters in his expanded dataset, and started looking at rewriting the description he had previously based on the German animal, we batted back and forth some name ideas, discarding some for phonetic reasons, others for ‘overuse’ by other taxa.  After his week’s visit to the Hunterian was over, it was clear that the Speeton Clay animal would be written up as the holotype of the ‘rigid swimmer’, with the German specimen as secondary paratype material.

I then left the process to be steered primarily by Valentin and Darren Naish, who I knew were far better positioned to write an ichthyosaur paper than I, as I had a lot of work to finish before I finally left the Hunterian at the end of August 2011 – and thereafter I was on the road to a variety of conferences for some months, finishing up another couple of papers.  This is my way of trying to excuse the fact that I did not review or correct the final copy of the paper, where it transposes the last three digits of the holotype (the specimen is GLAHM 132855, not 132588).  Hey ho.  But with over 4,100 views of the paper in the last 5 days, the specimen at least now no longer languishes in anonymity within the collections of the Hunterian, and has finally achieved the status and recognition that it has so long deserved.

Thanks, Valentin – again, really good job.

And bear in mind that this is the first of three phases of ichthyosaur work that Darren, Valentin and I are hoping to publish this year, partly derived from Robert Appleby’s unfinished works – optimistically under the ‘brand identity’ of ‘Ichthyosaur Revolution’.  So stay tuned…..

Jeff Liston,
National Museums Scotland,
(also School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol),
Edinburgh,
SCOTLAND.

Upper image: GLAHM 132855, the Holotype of Acamptonectes densus.  (Ribs omitted to preserve the sanity of the curator - because he would have had to lay them all out and put them away again afterwards.) Photograph © and many thanks to Iona Shepherd.
Lower image: Acamptonectes densus Fischer et al., 2012, as reconstructed by C. M. Kosemen (contact c.m.kosemen@gmail.com). 

Sloppy journalism

One of the hazards of posting quick and easy geological stories to the shop Facebook page with some glib comment attached is that I don't always put in an adequate level of background research. I got caught out yesterday linking to a BBC article about a bit of a breakthrough in ichthyosaur history which had been given a slightly misleading spin by the journalist.

The article, while a little cursory, focuses on the 2005 find from Braunschweig in Germany, missing the point that the source material, a paper published on PLoS ONE, based its findings far more heavily on the study of fossils found near Scarborough in 1958 and since. On this occasion, at least, I'm able to redress my sloppiness to some extent and allow one of the authors of the original paper to guest on the blog and either tell us a little more about the subject or give me a dressing down. In my defence, I don't pretend to be a proper scientist. I don't even own a white lab coat.

[Edit] Jeff will tell the story behind the paper. Now, I've never written a scientific article, because I don't know enough about anything and I'm lazy. Jeff, however, is a proper scientist so the blog post will be longer than usual and contain some technical terms such as 'basiocciput'. I find it best just to nod at those parts and carry on. Anyway. I'll get the final draft in a couple of days and post it.