Saturday, May 28, 2011

What My Child Is Reading - More Paleontology, History, and Confusion

We've kind of become paleontological historians this week, thanks to Nathan Aaseng's ten short biographies of past and present paleontologists in his American Dinosaur Hunters, and because of a call we put into the The Museum of the Rockies, attempting to find out, what we thought was a simple questions - "How many T. Rex fossils have been found worldwide, representing how many skeletons? And of those, how many have been found in Montana."

The answer proved difficult for them to find (though they did make an attempt, something I really appreciate). That fact, together with PBS's American Experience: Dinosaur Wars, which we watched to go along with the Aaseng's biographies of O.C. Marsh, and Edward Cope, led us to understand the history of American paleontology has been more about treasure hunting like pirates, than investigating like scientists.

We saw this theme repeated in Judith Williams' The Discovery and Mystery of A Dinosaur Named Jane, where we read about a team from the Burpee Museum of Natural History hiding a dinosaur find under fresh dirt and rock, until they could return to the sight a year later, with proper permits allowing them to dig, and remove the fossils of a juvenile T. Rex. It wasn't enough for them to make the find, they needed to keep it for themselves.

This has been the case with many fossil finds, but no more so than with the remains of the T. Rex, as we read about in Douglas Dixon's The Discovery of T. Rex. Even the learned halls of academia have made a series of errors in their presentations of fossils and findings, in the rush to be the first to present a new dinosaur.

Another thing we've noticed is that many of the men and women (mainly men) who are considered giants in the history of paleontology, the ones who have formed our thinking of the "prehistoric" world, were not as educated, or trained, or even atheistic, as the current scientific literature might have led us to believe. Even Dr. John "Jack" Horner, the curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, holds only an honorary doctorate, and as far as I can tell, has not even earned a bachelors degree.

Still he's a fascinating researcher, we appreciated his TedxVancouver presentation entitled, "The Shape-Shifting Skulls of Dinosaurs", found here, on You Tube. And, I'm thoroughly enjoying his How to Build a Dinosaur, Extinction Doesn't Have to Be Forever co-authored by James Gorman. I'm reading it pretty well as a work of science fiction, set in Montana, but with a few tendrils of truth, and glimpses into where the science is heading.

If nothing else, it's extremely well written, and brings to surface another fact I've learned personally this week, reading it along side Faith, Form, and Time by Kurt Wise (a creationist, who earned his doctorate in paleontology from Harvard) - that when men of science, or letters, choose to write about their field for the layman, they should always use a ghost writer.

I would love to jump up on a soap box, and rant for a bit about all of the above, but ranting is not really my forte. And besides, this post is growing rather long, and I still wanted to recommend one more book we read this week, before linking into Mouse Grows Mouse Learns' What My Child Is Reading link-up (where you can find out what other families have been reading, and are recommending this week), and that is Dinosaur Mummies, Beyond Bare-Bone Fossils by Kelly Milner Halls.

The main reason for my recommendation of this book, beyond it's very interesting topic, can be found in the last few pages, where Halls lists eleven major mummified finds, including where, when, and by whom they were found, as well as the expert in charge of the dig, and the headquarters, or organization behind the "expert". It's not all that often you come across such clear, well mapped out, and presented paleontological information, and is definitely worth note.

It's great to be a homeschooler.


Ticia said...

Ineresting I hadn't known that about most paleotologists.

Evenspor said...

When studying any branch of science, you will find similar things. Science seldom seems to advance for its own sake and often is fueled by nothing nobler than politics.

Anonymous said...

Your guys might find this tangentially constructive. The idea of joints and movement in the large scale. The problems of torque on a system of scale etc. It gave our guys a different perspective on movement in nature.

Warning: The guy is off his rocker. He really thinks he has created a new species.

An Almost Unschooling Mom said...

eavice - Yes, we've seen that - he does come across as crazy - but the devices are marvelous!

Christy Killoran said...

Fascinating and disturbing all wrapped up in one nice package.

MaryAnne said...

I think the treasure hunting behavior is part of why some "dinosaurs" were later found to not really exist...

Fascinating collection of books!

Debbie said...

Very interesting post. It confirms a lot of what my husband has stated for years. It seems to me that I've heard most of this information about paleontologists on some documentary I watched a few years back.

Natalie PlanetSmarty said...

This is very fascinating. I agree that science can be very competitive, especially in the purely academic areas such as paleontology. I call it purely academic, since it doesn't have any practical applications except finding a spectacular specimen to display in a famous museum.