Stories tagged History and Nature of Science

May
19
2014

Early dinosaur hyperbole: New York newspaper from December, 1898
Early dinosaur hyperbole: New York newspaper from December, 1898Courtesy Public domain
The Internet has been all a-buzz lately about the largest dinosaur - EVER - being discovered in Argentina. The beast is massive - equal to 14 elephants and as long as two tractor trailers! The story's accompanying photo (several, in fact) often shows an adult man laid out next to a gigantic titanosaur femur. Pretty impressive, at least at first. But the problem I had was finding out some idea of how long the bone was or how tall the man was. It's all relative, of course. It reminds of one of my favorite W. C. Fields scenes is in the movie YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN where he plays a carnival barker at a sideshow touting the World's Largest Midget and the World's Smallest Giant, and featuring two guys of average height.

Giant dinosaur bone = giant guy: Evidently, Bill Reed was a big, big man
Giant dinosaur bone = giant guy: Evidently, Bill Reed was a big, big manCourtesy Public domain
This kind of hyperbole has been around ever since dinosaurs were first discovered. If the bone pictured in the 1898 New York Advertiser article is as large as the caption claims, then the man standing next to it, William Harlow Reed, is eight feet tall as well(!) - an equally if not more impressive story that the newspaper obviously overlooked.

It should be noted that the sensational discovery was the catalyst for steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to spend lots of money to get himself his own dinosaur (Diplodocus carnegiei) in 1899. It wasn't quite as large as the one that inspired his quest but casts of Carnegie's dinosaur were given to various foreign heads of states, helping spread dinosaur fever to the world.

SOURCES and LINKS
BBC story
Geo Scienze blog (in Spanish)
CNN story
Everything Dinosaur blog
Sauropod Vertebrate Picture of the Week

Mar
12
2014

World Wide Web began 25 years ago
World Wide Web began 25 years agoCourtesy bob8son (spiderweb); (graphic by Mark Ryan)
This month marks the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web. According to this PEW Internet Project website, the ubiquitous system now connecting much of the world was started back in 1989 as a European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) project named ENQUIRE. The internet service, America On Line (AOL), began that same year.

I was an early subscriber to AOL and one of my earliest memories of discovering the power of the web was in the spring of 1991. My brother and I wanted to view the total solar eclipse taking place that July across Hawaii and Mexico and were trying to find flights to either place. The demand was high and remaining flights to Hawaii turned out to be way out of our price range (which was just as well since most eclipse viewers there got clouded out). We considered driving into Mexico from someplace in the southern US but that was predicted to be a nightmare of frozen traffic, so we tried to find flights into Mexico but were having no luck finding anything reasonable on the phone with airline reservationists. So I searched on-line (strictly text-only; no graphics whatsoever) for something in our time and price range and came up with flights to and from the Mexican west coast town of Puerto Vallarta for a very reasonable price. Armed with that information I called the airline directly and guided the reservationist to the specific flights (which she seemed unaware of) and purchased our tickets.

Puerto Vallarta, by the way, was located just on the outside of the predicted edge of totality but we hooked up with an astronomy expedition that bussed us a few kilometers north and into the path of moon's shadow. A very satisfying eclipse watching experience thanks in part to the Internet.

Happy anniversary to the World Wide Web!

SOURCE
PEW Internet Project website

Oct
16
2013

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura): an ugly yet somewhat majestic raptor species often seen soaring around Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Minnesota during the annual fall migration.
Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura): an ugly yet somewhat majestic raptor species often seen soaring around Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Minnesota during the annual fall migration.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Birds seem to be a big part of my recent experience, so I thought I'd put together a little post of events featuring our fine, feathered friends.

Here at the Science Museum of Minnesota, an antique model of Archaeopteryx originally created by modelmaker Gustaf Sundstrom in 1934 is on display once again as Object of the Month for October. Archaeopteryx model by Gustaf Sundstrom
Archaeopteryx model by Gustaf SundstromCourtesy Mark Ryan
Archaeopteryx has long been considered the earliest bird - it lived around 150 million years ago during the Late Jurassic - sharing the world with giant sauropods and vicious therapods such as Apatosaurus and Allosaurus, respectively. Even though Archaeopteryx has been recently re-categorized from being a "dinosaur-like bird" to being a "bird-like dinosaur" (I'm not sure what the difference is but I suspect it has do do with percentages) - anyway, it still ranks as one of the great transitional fossils. You can see the Object of the Month display in the Collections Gallery on the 4th floor of the Science Museum of Minnesota all this month.

Another bird-related story deals with naturalist and artist John James Audubon and his artistic masterpiece Birds of America, both which I've covered before here.

Audubon's Whooping Crane: plate no. 226 from the artist's masterpiece Birds of America.
Audubon's Whooping Crane: plate no. 226 from the artist's masterpiece Birds of America.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Back in the early 19th century Audubon, tramped around the American frontier seeking just about every kind of bird he could find, shoot, and paint for his masterpiece natural history tome, Birds of America. The original edition featured 435 exquisite plates of birds drawn in natural size, were etched in copperplates (along with some engraving and aquatint), then printed in black and white and printed on large double-elephant folio-sized (30 x 40) handmade paper. Each of the large black and white prints were hand-painted in watercolors by a team of skilled colorists and bound into two volumes. Long considered one of the greatest collections of natural history illustration, only some 200 sets were completed in the mid-19th century. Of those only about 100 remain in existence. The rest were either destroyed or disassembled and sold off as individual prints. Because they were hand-colored, these large first editions are considered "originals" and are quite valuable. Smaller, more inexpensive prints and editions were later created and sold.

Audubon exhibit: Preview Night at the Bell Museum
Audubon exhibit: Preview Night at the Bell MuseumCourtesy Mark Ryan
Lucky for us one of the original Double Elephant Folio sets is held by the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis. Even luckier for us, the Bell has just opened a brand new exhibit, called Audubon and the Art of Birds, which is centered around some of these beautiful originals of Audubon's wonderful illustrations. I attended the preview a couple weeks back and let me tell you, it is a chance in a lifetime to see these rare and beautiful natural history illustration masterpieces. The exhibition opened on October 5th and runs in two sections. Right now, 33 of Audubon's mammoth prints grace the walls of the exhibit (along with illustrations by other bird artists) then other restored mammoth prints of Audubon illustrations will be rotated in during a two week shutdown in January, and the exhibit's second half reopens on February 1st. Find more information about the exhibition here.

On the lookout for birds: Visitors to Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory scan the skies for migrating raptors above Duluth, Minnesota.
On the lookout for birds: Visitors to Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory scan the skies for migrating raptors above Duluth, Minnesota.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Last week, my wife and I took a day-trip to Duluth and stopped at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, located on Skyline Parkway overlooking the east end of the city. The site is a favorite autumn destination for bird-watchers of all kinds. Snared and tagged raptor: Hawk Ridge volunteer Jessica displays the wing of a sharp-shinned hawk.
Snared and tagged raptor: Hawk Ridge volunteer Jessica displays the wing of a sharp-shinned hawk.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Official bird-counters were still there tabulating hawks, eagles and other raptors migrating south for the winter. The count will continue through October. Set and release: a lucky Hawk Ridge visitor launches a banded sharp-shinned hawk back into the wild.
Set and release: a lucky Hawk Ridge visitor launches a banded sharp-shinned hawk back into the wild.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The birds don't like crossing the wide expanse of Lake Superior on their way south, so they funnel into Duluth to cross there. We only saw a couple birds in the air while we were there (some 680 had been counted earlier in the day), but a couple of hawks snared just down the road were brought up to the ridge overlook for banding and release. Volunteers tagged and recorded the hawks (a goshawk - Accipiter gentilis - and a sharp-shinned hawk - Accipiter striatus), then enlisted the help of a couple of lucky onlookers to release them back into the wild. It was a beautiful afternoon on the Ridge.

LINKS
Object of the Month
Audubon and the Art of Birds
Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory
View Birds of America prints via the University of Pittsburgh

Oct
15
2013

Artifact Cleaning: kayscElias cleaning artifacts on Level 4 in the Collections Gallery
Artifact Cleaning: kayscElias cleaning artifacts on Level 4 in the Collections GalleryCourtesy Amanda
Did you know that artifacts must be cleaned once they are taken from an archeological site? Every category of artifact must be cleaned in a different way, as to prevent damage. Lithics (stoneworks) can be scrubbed vigorously and can be soaked with water unless it has a worked edge which may have residue that can be identified. Pottery should be scrubbed less vigorously and cannot be submerged, as the pottery would absorb the water and disintegrate. If pottery is larger than a quarter, it should not be scrubbed on the interior, as it may have some residue that would be helpful. Faunal (bone) artifacts must be cleaned very carefully, like pottery, or it will become soft and brittle. Charcoal contains certain carbon isotopes, like carbon-14, that we can use to date when the item was burned, allowing us to learn a lot from small artifacts. Charcoal also preserves anything living, like seeds or wood. Artifacts are scrubbed with a wet toothbrush and put on a newspaper to dry. Once the artifacts are dried they are cataloged and put in the collection for research.

Aug
02
2013

Last Monday, the Heritage Crew got a lesson in lithics from the Archaeology department at the Science Museum. Lithics are stone tools like arrowheads, hammerstones, metates (millstones or grinders), and stone blades. Lithics,(or stone tools) come in many different shapes and sizes. Some stone tools are "unifacial" which means that they have been flaked on one side only. Others are "bifacial" which means that they have been flaked on both sides of the rock. There are some stone tools that can be "nonfacial" which means that they were not worked on and just used how they were. Efficient knappers (stone tool makers) can flake off long, thin blades and not have to rework it, and then would be able to haft the blade onto a wood or bone handle. Hammerstones however, were not worked on, they were just stones used to hit and crush objects. They were used in conjunction with anvilstones and usually had spots worn away and made very bumpy.

Jun
28
2013

Maya stone idol: A towering replica of Stela A, seen here in artist Frederick Catherwood's wonderful illustration, greets visitors to the new Science Museum of Minnesota Maya exhibit. Catherwood and writer John Lloyd Stephens re-introduced the Maya culture to the world in two travel books written in the early 19th century.
Maya stone idol: A towering replica of Stela A, seen here in artist Frederick Catherwood's wonderful illustration, greets visitors to the new Science Museum of Minnesota Maya exhibit. Catherwood and writer John Lloyd Stephens re-introduced the Maya culture to the world in two travel books written in the early 19th century.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The new Science Museum of Minnesota exhibit, Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed has just opened and is a must-see for anyone interested in the ancient and mysterious civilization that once flourished and ruled in Central America. This wide-ranging exploration of the social, political, spiritual and cultural world of the Maya includes artifacts, displays, and hands-on interaction for museum visitors. In conjunction with this very special Science Museum of Minnesota exhibit, the SMM is partnering with the Maya Society of Minnesota to present several lectures at Hamline University during the exhibit's run this summer and into the winter.

I attended the first lecture in the series last Friday night. Archaeologist Jaime Awe Professor Jaime Awe at Hamline: the director of the Institute of Archaeology in Belize lectured on his exploration of Maya ritual sites in the caves of western Belize.
Professor Jaime Awe at Hamline: the director of the Institute of Archaeology in Belize lectured on his exploration of Maya ritual sites in the caves of western Belize.Courtesy Mark Ryan
gave a brief overview of the early Maya worldview then talked about his work investigating some impressively large caves in western Belize near where he was born and raised. Inside the caves he and his research team have discovered pottery, torch sticks, writings, and ritualistic artifacts along with human footsteps and unburied skeletal remains, many of children.

Awe hypothesizes that the caves were used by the Maya (from the Classic Period) to make desperate ritualistic pleas by way of human sacrifices to the Maya rain deity. And evidence seems to back him up. Using carbon dating techniques and core analysis of stalactites from the caves, the time-frame of these cave rituals correlate with a period of severe drought in that region of Belize.

The Maya culture is a truly fascinating one. There are several more lectures and workshops to catch each month through next December, and the Maya exhibit at the museum runs through January 5, 2014. By the way, the museum's Omnitheater is also presenting the film Mystery of the Maya. which presents a very nice overview of the early Maya exploration and discoveries. I recommend you view the film first before going through the Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibit.

LINKS
Lectures and Workshops Schedule
Maya Society of Minnesota Facebook page
Hamline University location

Apr
17
2013

Fossils and art contest: The 2013 National Fossil Day Art and Photography contest is now open for submissions.
Fossils and art contest: The 2013 National Fossil Day Art and Photography contest is now open for submissions.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Do you like fossils? Do you like to draw or take photographs? Then you should know that the 4th annual National Fossil Day Art and Photography Contest is now accepting submissions. The contest runs until next autumn (submissions must be postmarked by October 4th) when judges will select the winning entries. It's all part of the many celebrations of fossils that take place across the country on and around the official National Fossil Day on October 16, 2013. The celebration is a combined effort by the National Park Service along with several federal and state agencies, and earth science related organizations.

There are four age categories: ages 5-8, 9-13, 14-18, and for us old-timers, 19 and up. You can find all the information you need here on the official National Fossil Day contest site.

This year's contest theme is: "Your nomination for our National Fossil". Maybe you think it's should be a dinosaur, or a trilobite, or one of the famous fossil fish found in the Green River shales of the western USA? Whatever you think, get out your pencils, pens, paints, or cameras and make your case for our national fossil.

By the way, Minnesota is one of 10 states in the union lacking an official state fossil. That needs to be remedied. Do you have a favorite fossil found in Minnesota? Maybe you found one yourself at one of the fossil collecting sites around the Twin Cities. If so, let us know in the comments.

LINKS
NFD Art & Photo Contest page
National Fossil Day site
National Fossil Day Flickr page

Apr
06
2013

The distant, lonely Earth seen from the Moon
The distant, lonely Earth seen from the MoonCourtesy NASA (via Zonu.com)
Back in 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were making their historic moonwalk, I remember thinking to myself, what would happen if some kind of malfunction on the Lunar Module prevented them from blasting off the Moon's surface back to the Command and Service Module? They would most certainly die, there's no doubt about that, because NASA had no rescue plan in place. But what about Michael Collins, the Command Module pilot who was orbiting the Moon in the mother ship? He was waiting to take his fellow crew members home to Earth. If they didn't show up, he'd be in for a pretty lonely and agonizing three-day trip across the quarter-million miles of empty space back to Earth. I wondered what that would have been like.

Fortunately, Apollo 11 was a tremendous success and all three astronauts made it back safely, as did the 18 Apollo astronauts who followed in their footsteps (including the ill-fated Apollo 13 astronauts), so the tragic scenario never played out.

Lonely Al Worden: Even the loneliest of Maytag repairmen would have nothing on this astronaut.
Lonely Al Worden: Even the loneliest of Maytag repairmen would have nothing on this astronaut.Courtesy NASA
But what would that have been like? Astronaut Al Worden probably came closest to experiencing the profound loneliness of isolation in ourter space, when he was piloting the Command Module for the Apollo 15 mission. While his crew mates were busy walking (and driving!) on the Moon's surface, Worden was circling overhead - all by himself - for 3 days. At times, when his craft disappeared behind the far side of the Moon, he had no communications with anyone - not even Mission Control - and was thousands of miles away from his colleagues, and hundreds of thousands of miles away from any other human beings. He holds the record for being the "most isolated human being" ever.

You might think it must have been an anxious time for the solo astronaut, but his story, which can be found here, might just surprise you.

SOURCE and LINKS
The Loneliest Human Being
Apollo 15 Mission
Al Worden's webpage

Mar
07
2013

Como Bluff c. 1879: William Harlow Reed stands before the expanse of the eroded anticline in southeastern Wyoming where he discovered dinosaur remains on March 7, 1877. When Samuel Williston arrived to supervise and organize the quarrying of the rich fossil deposits for Yale paleontologist O. C. Marsh, he was told that "the bones are by the ton and extend for six or seven miles!". Watercolor by Arthur Lakes.
Como Bluff c. 1879: William Harlow Reed stands before the expanse of the eroded anticline in southeastern Wyoming where he discovered dinosaur remains on March 7, 1877. When Samuel Williston arrived to supervise and organize the quarrying of the rich fossil deposits for Yale paleontologist O. C. Marsh, he was told that "the bones are by the ton and extend for six or seven miles!". Watercolor by Arthur Lakes.Courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University
On this day in 1877, railroad worker William Harlow Reed came over a ridge-top with the remains of a freshly killed antelope slung over his shoulder, and spotted huge fossilized bones exposed on the side of the steep bluff located a half-mile south of Como Station, a desolate railroad stop on the High Plains of Wyoming. It was a discovery that would forever change his life.

Reed and station master, William Carlin, began collecting up as much as they could, dreaming of money and employment other than railroad work. They waited several months before announcing the discovery in a letter to Yale professor Othniel C. Marsh, at the time one of America's prominent paleontologists. When a crate of bones - along with the guarantee of many more - arrived at Yale, Marsh realized they were dinosaur remains and hired both men to excavate and send him as much as they could, and to keep out any interlopers to his claim. Marsh knew if he could keep it secret - at least for a short time - the fossils at Como Bluff could give him a huge advantage in his rivalry with Philadelphia paleontologist, Edward Drinker Cope, and their notorious Bone Wars.

Geology of Como Bluff and environs: Diagram created by the American Museum of Natural History, c. 1900.
Geology of Como Bluff and environs: Diagram created by the American Museum of Natural History, c. 1900.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The dinosaur-rich strata at Como Bluff (the Morrison Formation) are found in the exposed flanks of an anticline (an upward fold), the center of which has been carved out by erosion [see diagram]. All three periods of the Mesozoic Era (Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous) are represented in the rock layers found there. Besides dinosaurs, fossils of fish, crocodiles, flying and swimming reptiles have also been found there. A significant number of important Late Jurassic mammalian fossils were discovered and collected by William Reed from Quarry 9 on the east end of Como. Reed also discovered and removed the great Brontosaurus excelsus skeleton that stands today in Yale's Peabody Museum.

Professor Marsh visits Como Bluff: Yale paleontologist, O. C. Marsh (right), lunches with his field workers, William Harlow Reed (center), and Edward Ashley (left) during his 1879 visit to the quarries at Como Bluff. Painting by Arthur Lakes.
Professor Marsh visits Como Bluff: Yale paleontologist, O. C. Marsh (right), lunches with his field workers, William Harlow Reed (center), and Edward Ashley (left) during his 1879 visit to the quarries at Como Bluff. Painting by Arthur Lakes.Courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University
In the years following its discovery hundreds of tons of dinosaur remains quarried at Como Bluff were shipped to Yale and other institutions pushing America into the forefront of vertebrate paleontology, and heavily influencing how museums would be constructed throughout the world. Former denizens of Como Bluff: The American Museum of Natural History's iconic Allosaurus displayed in its fantastic pose over the remains of an Apatosaurus. Both specimens were collected at Como Bluff, the Allosaurus in 1879 by F. F. Hubbell (for E. D. Cope) and the Apatosaurus in 1897 by an AMNH field crew.
Former denizens of Como Bluff: The American Museum of Natural History's iconic Allosaurus displayed in its fantastic pose over the remains of an Apatosaurus. Both specimens were collected at Como Bluff, the Allosaurus in 1879 by F. F. Hubbell (for E. D. Cope) and the Apatosaurus in 1897 by an AMNH field crew.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The dinosaur halls at the American Museum of Natural History have several mounted specimens found at Como Bluff as does the Smithsonian in our nation's capitol. Well-known genera like Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus and Camptosaurus are just a few of the dinosaurs pulled from the mudstones and sandstones at Como Bluff. In the early 20th century it was thought that Como had exhausted its supply of dinosaur remains and exploration there for the most part tapered off for several decades. But in recent years, paleontologist Robert Bakker has been re-examining the quarries and uncovering additional secrets still buried in the Jurassic bluffs at Como.

Como Bluff today: The same year dinosaurs fossils were discovered at Como Bluff two other major dinosaur discoveries occurred in Colorado, one near the town of Morrison, and another farther south in Garden Park. Along with Como Bluff, the three sites were battlegrounds for the famous Bone Wars. Paleontologist Samuel Williston was present at all three sites in the early months of their discovery and said Como Bluff was the earliest.
Como Bluff today: The same year dinosaurs fossils were discovered at Como Bluff two other major dinosaur discoveries occurred in Colorado, one near the town of Morrison, and another farther south in Garden Park. Along with Como Bluff, the three sites were battlegrounds for the famous Bone Wars. Paleontologist Samuel Williston was present at all three sites in the early months of their discovery and said Como Bluff was the earliest.Courtesy Mark Ryan
William Reed worked for Marsh for several more years and the two men remained friends until the Yale professor's death in 1899. Reed continued in the field of paleontology, working independently, and for a time with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He finished out his career as a popular geology professor and museum curator at the University of Wyoming, just sixty miles from Como Bluff, the great dinosaur graveyard that changed not only the course his life but also that of American paleontology.

Como Bluff was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It's also been designated as one of Wyoming's National Natural Landmarks by the National Park Service.

LINKS
Biography of William Harlow Reed

Marsh's Dinosaurs: The Collections from Como Bluff

Discovering Dinosaurs in the Old West: the Field Journals of Arthur Lakes

Journal of a recent dinosaur dig at Como Bluff

Sep
25
2012

National Fossil Day: A great time to dig fossils (both literally and figuratively).
National Fossil Day: A great time to dig fossils (both literally and figuratively).Courtesy Mark Ryan
Next month, the National Park Service once again teams with the American Geological Institute and other partners to celebrate the third annual National Fossil Day.

The mission of NFD is to “promote public awareness of fossils as well as to foster a greater appreciation of their scientific and educational value.”

This year the official day falls on October 17, but celebrations take place at various locations around the country over several days. Here at the Science Museum of Minnesota, the day will be celebrated on Saturday, October 20, 1pm-4pm throughout the museum. You can see what events are happening in your own area here.

Besides going out and hunting for fossils, one of my favorite NFD activities is the National Fossil Day Art & Photography Contest. As in previous years, the competition is open to anyone across several age groups. This year’s theme is “Careers in Paleontology”. A panel of NFD partners and paleontologists will select the winning entries. I’ve already sent in my submission but you have until October 5th (postmark deadline) to enter your own masterpiece.

National Fossil Day is usually observed in conjunction with Earth Science Week and this year is no different. EWS occurs October 14-20, and this year’s theme is Discovering Careers in the Earth Sciences.

LINKS
National Fossil Day website
Earth Science Week websie