Thoughts on the future of things

rutiodon-tooth-dvps

A tooth of Rutiodon sp. from the Triassic-age Bull Canyon Formation in New Mexico.

I attended two lectures in the past week that were of exceptional interest, and I need to tell you about them.

On Thursday night I was over at the Academy for a Delaware Valley Paleontological Society meeting. It was quite fun, and I ended up acquiring a Rutiodon tooth from New Mexico (picture above). But the main event of the evening was a talk by Jason Schein, formerly of the New Jersey State Museum, and his work in the Bighorn Basin. I was already well acquainted with this – the current project had been running for several years, and I followed the team’s progress pretty regularly. But it’s taken a new life of its own: the project is now a wholly independent organization called the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute. Go check out their website and support them if you can. I’ll explain why in a little bit, and hopefully convince you why it matters.

On Friday morning, we had a guest lecturer in our earth history class: Dr. Ted Daeschler (Devonian paleontologist, Academy curator, and official Best Dude Ever™). He gave an overview on stem tetrapods, the Red Hill site, and his work on Tiktaalik. Once again, the content is especially familiar to me, as well as the people behind the content. But all this served as a reaffirmation of sorts that I needed for a few reasons.

This should hopefully provoke a number of questions from you, the reader:

Q: Hang on, hold the phone, where the hell have you been?

A: Yeah, about that. Been a while. As a matter of fact it’s been nearly a year, which is a bit disappointing given that I’d only written two posts before sodding off somewhere else. It’s been long enough that dead links have already started showing up in the immediately preceding post to this one. My half-written Atopodentatus overview has been shelved somewhere in the inner echelons of my hard drive, and my planned overview of paleontology in 2016 is two months late to be of much use. So an update should be helpful.

  1. College. It’s a thing, and I’m doing the thing. As previously stated, I’m at Drexel for geoscience, and I’ve emerged from the first quarter with appreciable grades and a GPA that keeps the scholarships coming (for now) – which is, frankly, what matters most at this point. The stats aren’t particularly exciting…but the discussions with students and faculty have been. I can’t tell you about most of them yet. Further bulletins as events warrant, though.
  2. I’ve mentioned the Academy of Natural Sciences numerous times – I work there now. Not volunteer there. I get paid to show up there and teach people about science. I’m not just over the moon, I’m sailing through the asteroid belt at faster-than-light speed en route towards the Oort Cloud. I’m coming for you, Voyager. You can’t hide forever.
  3. There was an election, apparently.

So I’ve been a bit busy. And these three things, combined with the aforementioned lectures, meld together into this complex, wide-reaching, yet ultimately necessary discussion about the future, and our role in it – as scientists, as educators, and as citizens of Planet Earth.

Q: How do all these things fit together?

A: Bear in mind that from this point forward, my points may be quite scatter-brained – I want to talk about a lot here, and frankly I should think about it for a few more days before committing to writing it down.

Let’s turn back to the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute for a bit. Stop what you’re doing and go read their mission statements (more specifically, the second section on the page). Go on. Do it right now. I’ll wait.

Everyone on the team is quite proud of these, and I share their sentiments. On Thursday night, hearing it all laid out was a glorious, punch-the-air moment for everyone in the room. It’s a joy to see this feeling articulated so well, especially by an organization with such a wide audience. As you may be aware, the BBPI runs week-long expeditions out west to collect fossils from a number of different time periods, and opens them up for members of the public to join (for a fee to cover costs). It’s a surprisingly effective model, and perhaps a pioneer example of what Schein calls “entrepreneurial academic paleontology”. And the world at large is starting to notice. Outlets as huge as CNN and Discover Magazine have recently covered the project. It was also the first (and so far only) time when targeted advertising did its job and worked beautifully to get my attention. Imagine my surprise, scrolling through Instagram this past summer, when suddenly the Jasons showed up and started talking bones. (The video is here, by the way – it’s very well made and gives you a good look into the goings-on at the Basin.) If only that would happen more often. Despite Apple’s best efforts, I remain unfazed by the new iPhone.

These types of project matter because it is essential that, more than ever, we as scientists must be able to

  1. convey our findings to a general audience and
  2. ensure that information is accurate and rigorous.

As a new museum educator, I have a lot to say about this, to the point where I have literally written essays about it in my freshman year. (Maybe I’ll post one eventually.)

During my time at the Academy so far, I’ve interacted with thousands of individual museumgoers with various different backgrounds and levels of foreknowledge about scientific topics. Some of them know nothing at all, and are eager to learn. Some of them are exceptionally well versed, and not only do they keep up with a conversation about the melanosomes of Sinosauropteryx – they initiate it. (That was an excellent day.) They too are still eager to learn.

And we need to support that hunger for knowledge, more than ever – both for the enthusiastic folk and for those who are perhaps less hungry, because it is no less important for them.

I was first witness to the crap that went on with the Badlands National Park’s Twitter feed, and I’ve remained engrossed with the developments that have spiraled out from that at an exponential rate. I still remember a time, about a month ago now, when the March for Science was just a Facebook page of only a few thousand instead of a massive organization with the support of major agencies such as the AAAS and the various departments in the American government muzzled by the new administration. Some people have been saying that, in an ideal world, science should remain apolitical out of respect for its objective nature and processes.

Unfortunately, this is far from an ideal world.

I sort of understand where those people are coming from, though. In the past, I tried not to get too involved with politics, or indeed voice much of an opinion about anything. Yes, I was still eager to teach people about cool stuff in the natural world, but I wanted to do it independently of any societal issues or pressures. There are people who can handle that kind of thing, I thought. Let them sort it out. The sun still rises every morning.

And then within the past few years I realized that I’m one of the people who can handle that kind of thing. Which was a little bit of a wakeup call.

So we need to speak up for a number of reasons: so that science is supported by the governments of the world, so that we can continue to further our work and the scientific process, and so that people can hear what we have to say over the rest of the bullshit ringing in our collective ears from all directions.

Q: What do we do to accomplish this, and how?

A: Good question for many reasons. It doesn’t have an easy, clear-cut answer.

On the political side of things, plenty of people are taking action. I’ve already mentioned the March for Science (if things go as planned I’ll either be at the main event in Washington or at the sister march in Philly), and enough information exists that you hardly need me blathering on about it when you can find the information presented elsewhere in an exceptionally better manner than any attempt of mine. I can only hope the results will be fruitful, and that the efforts of hundreds of thousands will be worthwhile.

But much more will happen on a smaller scale. Simple outreach events may do wonders to promote reason and the phenomena of our world. New and innovative programs like the BBPI can provide people with a fresh and exciting perspective on the work scientists do, and give insight into how we know what we know. And of course we must never underestimate the power of the museum to captivate and inspire the next generation.

houf2ci

#WeirdThingsInJars. Get it trending.

I had the opportunity to play with dead frogs the other day. More specifically, they were frogs from the Academy’s extensive collections, and we had them out for a weekend as part of “Froguary”, born out of the traveling exhibit that is currently in residence at the museum and our intense obsession with silly puns. There were the usual suspects – the bullfrog, spotted salamanders, the American toad. But we also had some really cool, seldom-seen stuff – a handsome goliath frog, two hellbenders chillin’ in an ethanol bath, the excessively gigantic tadpoles of the paradox frog shown alongside their diminutive parents. And the visitors that walked by were enthralled. They marveled at the specimens, asked some excellent questions – and most even knew the jars were not footballs to toss around. Which is always a win in my book.

Talk to any museum professional around the world and you’ll hear similar stories. This stuff works. And it’s just one form of science communication out there – I could talk about educational television programs, stories in the press, blogs very much like the one you’re reading right now.

So the question isn’t necessarily “how do we communicate science to people”. As ever, the devil is in the details, but by and large we know the answer because we’ve been doing it for years. Basically, we know the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything Really – we just need the proper Question.

Q: What about them Tiktaaliks, then?

A: Stay tuned.

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(and for the love of god don’t take that literally, you’ll be stuck here for months like last time)

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