Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Sexy Paleontologist - a literary conundrum

The other day, a very nice lady called Anna Richland who writes for a blog called “Dammed Scribbling Women” wrote a response to one of my posts in which she asked why there were so few literary paleontologists. The question was a follow-up from this post on DSW. If you scroll down you’ll see that Jerry Harris has made a pretty good stab at some reasons why this might be (I particularly like the “Grizzly Adams” hypothesis). Initially (and rather glibly) I commented that I’d never met a sexy paleontologist, and I will hold fast to this contention, but on reflection I decided that Anna’s question deserved better than that. So here are a few thoughts.

“His heart racing, he tore the fossil from the dirt with his bare hands”

Science is a methodical process – exciting as the results may be, the process by which we arrive at them is long and often tortuous. As I’ve discussed before, paleontology may give the superficial appearance of being easier than lab science, but in its own way it’s just as exacting. The problem is that methodical is the polar opposite of sexy. Sexy people are impulsive, unpredictable, and passionate. I’m sure there are some scientists that are like this outside of the workplace (although honestly, after over 20 years in science of one form or another I’m struggling to think of any) but you won’t last long in any scientific career by being careless or impatient.

Take, for example, Roy Chapman Andrews, the Indiana-like leader of the AMNH’s Central Asiatic Expeditions. If you had to come up with a sexy paleontologist, RCA would be your man; hat at a rakish angle, clutching a pistol, and off to do battle with fiendish Mongolian bandits. The only problem was that, by his own admission, he was hopelessly unsuited to the actual business of being a paleontologist, which is the patient excavation of fossils. He was more likely to reach for a pickax than a brush and needle, and was actually forbidden by his own staff from going anywhere near the fossils. The real paleontological discoveries of the CAE were made by his chief paleontologist, Walter Granger, who whatever his other merits could never be described as “sexy.”

“My God,” she gasped, “You’ve consolidated that fossil using a cyanoacrylate! Don’t you know the accelerators for that are highly unstable?”

An old adage of mine (often told to staff who are panicking because they’ve dropped something or inadvertently issued a duplicate catalog number) is that nobody dies when we screw up. That puts paleontologists in stark contrast to the doctors, pilots, soldiers, and explorers that make up many of the protaganists of romantic fiction. There are certainly some fields of science where horrible death is a possibility – working in a Biosafety Level 4 containment lab, for example – but the only paleontologists that I know of who’ve died on the job are a guy who was crushed when he undercut a cliff too far in pursuit of a mammoth skeleton, and Hugh Strickland, a Victorian paleontologist who in 1853 was hit by a train while examining geological strata in a railway cutting.

Of course, it would be far more exciting if you ran the risk of being eaten by the subjects of your research. This is why field biologists rank higher than paleontologists on the ladder of sexy fictional scientists. To get around this you have to play fast and loose with either the laws of space and time (Primeval) or genetics (Jurassic Park).

“This is the first ever dinosaur egg! Men would kill for such a prize!”

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about the increasing monetary value of fossils. It’s true that a big skeleton of one of the really iconic dinosaurs can fetch a large amount of money, but most fossils that end up on the market make their finders a lot less than this. Even “Sue” (which at $7.6 million is easily the most expensive fossil sold on the open market) comes nowhere near even the cheapest items on Wikipedia’s listing of most expensive paintings and is worth barely a twentieth of the money paid for Jackson Pollock’s “No. 5, 1948” in 2006. Why this might be is a subject too lengthy to debate here. Maybe, as naturally occurring objects, fossils don’t “speak” to people in the same way that art or archaeological artifacts do. There’s no hidden message from a creator. It may also be that fossils are not seen as an acceptable interest for adults, in contrast to the way that a passion for art or music is seen as evidence of sophistication. Or it may simply be that the market for collecting fossils is too new to have reached the giddy heights of the art world. Whatever the case, you’re more likely to make your fortune by winning the lottery than by finding a fossil.

“I shall have tenure, dammit! And nothing shall stop me!”

Fictional characters are often driven by grand passions or the pursuit of barely obtainable goals. The passions of the average academic are a good deal more mundane, and usually revolve around tenure, funding, and getting into press before your competitors. Also, the grand prizes tend to elude paleontologists – it’s possible that one day a paleontologist will win a Nobel prize, but it’s hard to see what for. We may add to the sum of human knowledge, but we’re unlikely to come up with a cure for the major ills that plague humanity.

“Your father was responsible for the rejection of my PNAS paper! Now I shall have my revenge!”

The blood feud is a staple of much pot-boiler literature, and it is here that science can at least make some claim to relevance. There are no feuds as passionate as academic feuds. The problem is that when they’re written down on paper they usually look quite silly and not the sort of thing that two grown men should indulge in for more than a few minutes, let alone decades (unless, of course, you believe that academia is a mechanism for prolonging childhood, in which case it all makes perfect sense).

The renowned paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson had an epic feud with AMNH Trustee and mega-donor Childs Frick that lasted from the thirties until Frick’s death in 1965. The source of this conflict? Frick was responsible for AMNH declining to publish a project undertaken by Simpson when he was a student. Simpson was unaware that Frick had funded his study as a prospecting trip and Frick wanted to protect the sites for future study. You can argue that their feud had a huge effect on the history of paleontology in the 20th Century, but it’s hardly the Montagues and Capulets. Or even the Sharks and the Jets.

“Robbing the BLM? Why, no man has ever tried that… and lived!”
Crime is another big plot point of thrillers and even bad-boy romances. It’s possible to conjure up romantic criminals – pirates spring to mind, for example, or perhaps Wild West outlaws. And there is certainly a thriving trade in illegally-collected fossils. However, on the one hand there’s robbing a stagecoach or plundering galleons on the Spanish Main and on the other.… there’s poaching fossil fish from the Bureau of Land Management.

Now fossil poachers do a great deal of damage and they’re probably not the sort of people you want to confront on top of a butte on a dark and windy night. But crime-wise they’re still a long way short of the major leagues. This is the sort of crime that lets you scrape a living in a rural community rather than buy yourself a mansion on Long Island. I guess someone might kill for a $100 fish, but he’s more likely to be living in a trailer, smoking meth, and dating his sister than romancing glamorous investigators in the manner of Thomas Crown.

So that's my 2 cents on the issue of the mysterious lack of paleontolgical heroes in literature. I’m sure there’s a great paleontological novel out there just waiting to be written. But it might be too tall an order for me.

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