Tuesday, February 10, 2009

He Blinded Me With Science

(Normally I try to confine myself to blogging about museum issues and steer clear of the P-word. But while I was standing at the station this morning, the following came into my head and stuck there. So this is me, getting it out)

When you’re a kid, you have a boundless enthusiasm for the natural world and an endlessly enquiring mind. What happens if I mix those two liquids together? What’s that funny smell? Why can’t I breathe? OK, maybe childhood experiments with domestic cleaning solvents are not the best example. But the fact remains that kids love to mess with stuff to see what happens, or to look under rocks to see what lives there, or to bash away at cliff faces in the hope of discovering fossils. Then in later life we take that enthusiasm and kill it with Science.

It’s a shattering moment for any young mind when you realize that science is really quite boring. Oh the results are interesting, to be sure. But the process by which you get those results? The creation of a hypothesis, the design of an experiment, the enormous series of controls, the horrific number of replicates, the mind-numbing tedium of statistical analysis. Then the careful crafting of a publication, written to remove any sense of emotion or excitement from the discovery – not hard, actually, because by the end of the experimental process most of that has already gone.

Then there’s peer review, which may result (horror of horror) in your having to go back and re-do all some or all of the experimentation at the behest of some dude who hates your guts because you’re competing with him for grant funding and so is more than happy to put your nads through the mangle. At the end of all that you may have a publication, which only five people will actually bother to read in its entirety (one of whom will be your mother). Unless you’re really lucky and it gets picked up by a professional science writer, who will turn it into an elegantly crafted, witty, and informative article for the New York Times and get plaudits for “really conveying the excitement of scientific research.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. This sort of rigorous, serious, exhaustive experimental research is the bedrock of science. The guy or girl that discovers the cure for cancer will do it this way, not to mention the person who finally builds the personal jet pack that the world has been waiting 50 years for. But for people, like me, science sometimes seems just too much like hard work.

Some years ago, I was sitting in a planning meeting for Oxford Science Week with a group of people that included Richard Dawkins. The organizers were busy trying to outdo each other with “wacky” ideas that convince “kids” that science was fun. Finally someone asked Dawkins what he thought. And he said, rather dismissively, that he thought it was a very bad thing to try and sell science as being fun, because it was actually very hard, more like learning to play the violin, and only people that really wanted to do it should be encouraged to do so. Which was an odd statement coming from a man who had just been made Oxford’s first Professor of the Public Understanding of Science and, frankly, put a bit of a dampener on the evening.

However, this was one of the very few instances where I agreed with Dawkins (who over the last 20 years has gone a bit odd and turned into the atheist’s equivalent of Jerry Falwell). I never had any desire to learn the violin and after discovering what was involved in being a scientist I didn’t have much desire to do that either. And yet here I am, a scientist (in name at least). So, is there a way for people to do science without actually having to – you know – do science? Well, friends, I’m here today to tell you that there is, and it’s called vertebrate paleontology.

By now any vertebrate paleontologists reading this blog (and there are some of you out there, I know) will have started huffing and puffing indignantly. In contrast to the UK, where we get all this unpleasantness out of the way as quickly as possible, the average US graduate student has to sit through an interminable number of courses on molecular biology, genetics, chemistry, geology (and probably astrophysics as well, for all I know) before they’re allowed to go and look at a fossil. Some of them – Lord help us – actually study the philosophy of science, which sounds a million miles away from the lab bench, but breeds a tendency for them to get all Karl Popper on your ass if they think you’re going soft on the scientific method. As a result, they acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of science that enables them to converse knowledgably on protein folding and cell membranes and oxidation and a whole bunch of other white-coat stuff. But guys, take a deep breath and let’s consider how we actually do science in VP.

This question was actually posed to me by my good friend Andy Miranker, who works on protein folding. Andy’s stuff actually has some practical applications to a bunch of nasty illnesses, including Alzheimer’s and Creutzfeldt - Jakob disease. Sitting in the pub one night, Andy asked me what paleontologists do, and after I’d given him an inspirational talk about illuminating the mysteries of life through the study of Deep Time he stopped me and said “no, I mean what do you actually do?” So I told him. I explained that we find fossils; we look at them; we describe them in excruciating detail, sometimes making drawings or photographs to help our readers to understand; we compare them to other organisms, both living and extinct; and based on the perceived similarities or differences, we make a number of sweeping and largely untestable hypotheses about how these organisms are related, how they may have evolved, and how they lived.

At the end of my exposition, Andy was unusually silent – actually, he was silent, which is a very unusual state for him. Initially I thought that I had wowed him with my rhetorical gifts, but then I realized that we had wandered so far from his scientific frame of reference that he was, in a very real sense, lost for words. Although we are both, notionally, “scientists,” we occupy completely different worlds. Andy’s field moves so fast that he rarely reads a journal article that’s more than 2 years old. My field moves so slowly that we still cite papers written in the 19th Century. Like a balding supermodel, Andy doesn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000, which is about what it costs him to open the door of his lab in the morning. By contrast, equipped with little more than a notebook, pencil, and round-trip train ticket to New York, I can perform time travel.

Consider these attractive facts about VP. I rarely have to worry about replicates, because the chances of any animal fossilizing are so infinitesimally small that I’m lucky if I have a sample size of one. I can’t measure things, because fossils are so distorted by the various geological forces acting on them that it becomes impossible to compare the same dimension in two individuals (assuming you actually have two – see above). That means no dreary statistical analyses. Provided that I stick to things that are more than 50,000 years old and have no living descendants (oreodonts and protoceratids are a couple of favorites from my past research) no-one can pressure me to include molecular analyses in my research. But if I find myself a compliant molecular biologist, I can collaborate with them and trumpet the benefits of a combined molecular and morphological study without actually having to do the molecular biology myself (most AMNH curators have adopted this cunning strategy).

There are some potential pitfalls for the science-averse paleontologist. Invertebrate paleontology is out, because the sheer number of specimens lends itself to statistical analysis. So is working on all those cool ground sloths, mammoths, and sabertooth cats, which tend to have a lot of DNA and other pesky biological macromolecules hanging about their desiccated carcasses. And never allow yourself to be tempted into biomechanics. It may seem pretty rad to figure out how fast T. rex could run or how much it would hurt to get bitten by a sabertooth cat, but the reality is you getting lost in a hell of vectors, levers, fulcrums, and turning moments. I discovered this during an ill-fated undergraduate project on the locomotion of pareiasaurs. Even if I had managed to figure out how fast they could move it would have been wickedly boring, because it’s obvious from one look at their skeleton that these were the Fat Alberts of the Permian.

Now don’t get me wrong. If I’ve given the impression that VP is easy, then nothing could be further from the truth. The sort of work that I do concentrates on the bottom of the skull in mammals, an area known as the basicranium. Structurally it’s horrifically complex – its ten separate bones (18 if you count left and right, 20 if you believe in the existence of entotympanics) make up not only the bottom and sides of the braincase, but also the ear region and the articulation of the jaw; an enormous number of the body’s major nerves and blood vessels pass over, around, or through it. One of my first experiences as a graduate student was spending two months trying to understand Mike Archer’s seminal 1976 paper on the basicranium and blood circulation of dasyurid marsupials. I had a bunch of marsupial skulls borrowed from the Oxford collection and I was reduced to plucking my own hairs (I actually had some back then) and feeding them into nerve and blood foramina in the skulls to see where they came out. Which was often not at all where I would have expected. Now imagine trying to interpret all of that in an animal with no living relative that has been squashed flat like road kill, which is what many fossils look like. So I guess that means that doing VP may be a little bit like playing the violin after all.

There you have it. Vertebrate paleontology. Easy - no. Boring – never.


  1. I knew I should have been a paleontologist!

  2. Very entertaining and thought-provoking piece. Now for the huffing and puffing. Lest Andy or any other readers conclude that old-school descriptive work is the only thing going in VP, allow me to note that in my lab, I'm really the only hard-staring, sweeping-generalizer around and even I may be reformed one day if my committee gets their way.

    A. over yonder runs complicated engineering software to "retro-deform" fossils and then runs the corrected models through even more complicated engineering software to test functional limits. J. cooks up discriminant functions to test the statistical validity of species definitions in fossil fish (which often inconveniently have ns that very nearly permit robust statistical analyses). L. performs independent contrasts and LDA/DFA on phylogenies of living taxa to search for behavioral correlates in soft and hard tissue which might, sort of, barely be applied to fossils. When K. and M. were around they tossed ground up samples into the mass spec or bombarded it with lasers or whatever to assess diagenesis and if lucky, characterize the environment and physiology the organisms in question (I used to toy around with that to).

    Whether one thinks such antics really "work" or qualify as "real" VP, people are doing them and increasingly chipping into the "traditional" VP funding block (for better or worse). I suspect that if you went to SVP and kicked out everyone who at least make noise about performing statistical, SEM, FEA, CT and/or stable isotope analyses, everyone who picked detrital zircons or stained thin sections, everyone who dumped their matrix into *PAUP or Mr Bayes, well you'd be left with a significantly smaller and even beardier, grayer, bitterer crowd then normal.

    Don't get me wrong I'm not saying that any or all of these techniques are necessarily as good or better than old-school comparative anatomy, and I'm certainly not saying that the old way of doing things should be abandoned. Each of these "new" tools has it's own pitfalls, tedia and frustrations. However, I do think our discipline has evolved and grown in the past couple of generations and its worth communicating that to the broader scientific community and for that matter the public too. Granted, this is being done already in a really lazy and unhelpful way: "just throw the dinosaur bone in a CT machine and all our questions are answered!"

    Alright, I'm out huffs, perhaps in need of a puff.

  3. Thanks, microecos, for raising some great points. Of course, you're right. Paleontology can be just as "cutting edge" as any other discipline when it comes to the application of new techniques. And there's some great new data coming out of CT scanning, microwear abrasion studies, stable isotope analyses, etc. In my own area, for example, I'm particularly looking forward to seeing the results of Jessica Theodor's new scanning study of artiodactyl basicrania. The predjudices that you see on display here were forged in the UK of the late 80s and early 90s when young and impressionable morphologists such as myself were told that there was no future for us because molecules would answer all the interesting questions. Two fruitless years trying to amplify possum DNA using mouse primers confirmed my feeling that this was not for me. As it turns out, the molecules reinvigorated our field, because they raised as many (if not more) questions than they answered.

    And Christie Lynn - it's *never* too late to be a paleontologist.

  4. Actually, as a collections manager observing from the sidelines, I always thought the hard parts of being a vertebrate paleontologist were:
    1) the hazards and hardship of field work (having your curator come back from Russia enthusing about bullet proof tires on the field vehicle is a bit offputting.)
    2) the basic discomfort of field work (which seems to consist of 12 hour stretches on one's knees in the blazing sun or freezing cold. Fossils seem to inevitably be exposed in, well, exposed regions of the earth
    3) being inducted into a field whose sartorial characteristics are leather boots, belt and hat that have not been changed, or cleaned, in ten or twenty years. (I think its like tree rings--you can age the scientist by the accumulated layers of dirt from field seasons.)
    4) the frequently acquired characteristic of collecting and processing road kill for comparative specimens, which is socially unpleasant in so many ways.

    And thank you, by the way, for capturing so perfectly why I left graduate school with a masters instead of a PhD. That and the accumulated karmic debt of several thousand dead baby chicks, sacrificed for their retinal membranes. Ick. Still have bad dreams about that...

  5. Re. #3, it's the bolo ties that I find difficult, badger - I could never get past the bolo ties