Preview: Terrible Lizard

Among the many intriguing characters making their appearance in Deborah Cadbury’s engaging Terrible Lizard: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science is Oxford’s colorful William Buckland:

“In the heart of Oxford, under the watchful eye of the deans and canons at the university, the Reverend William Buckland’s enthusiasm for ‘undergroundology’ was beginning to attract wider support. As Reader in Minerology he had expanded the course to debate the latest geological ideas: whether the ‘days’ of creation could correspond to lengthy ‘eras’; the nature of Noah’s Flood; the order of Creation. According to one reviewer, Buckland was so inspiring as a speaker that ‘he awakened in the University and elsewhere, an admiration and interest in Geology’. He told his friend the amateur geologist Lady Mary Cole that he had been lecturing to an ‘overflowing class . . . amongst whom I reckon the Bishop of Oxford, four other Heads of Colleges and three Canons of Christchurch’.

“His idiosyncrasies were becoming almost as famous as his lectures and were accepted at the university as part of his brilliance. Anyone passing through the neatly trimmed rose gardens of the quad at Corpus Christi to Buckland’s rooms, expecting to find the usual happy amalgamation of elegance and learning fit for a don, would soon discover that the professor had different priorities. ‘I can never forget the scene that awaited me on repairing from the Star Inn to Buckland’s domicile,’ recalled Robert Murchison, an undergraduate at Oxford. ‘Having climbed up a narrow staircase . . . I entered a long corridor-like room filled with rocks, shells and bones in dire confusion. In a sort of sanctum at the end was my friend in his black gown, looking like a necromancer, sitting on a rickety chair covered with some fossils, clearing out a fossil bone from the matrix.

“In addition to fossils strewn liberally on almost every surface and the stuffed creatures in the hall, Professor Buckland was a keen naturalist and kept a number of unusual pets. There were cages full of snakes and green frogs in the dining-room, where the candles were placed in Icthyosauri’s vertebrae. Guinea-pigs roamed freely throughout his office. Walter Stanhope, a tutor at Oxford, described an evening in Buckland’s apartments: ‘I took care to tuck my legs on the sofa, for fear of a casual bite from a jackal that was wandering around the room. After a while I heard the animal munching up something under the sofa and was relieved that he should have found something to occupy him. I told Buckland. “My poor guinea pigs!” he exclaimed, and sure enough, four of the five of them had perished.’

“By far the most splendid creature in Buckland’s menagerie was a bear, rather grandly named Tiglath Pileser, after the founder of the Assyrian Empire in the Old Testament Book of Kings. Unlike his namesake, who was renowned for his brutal punishment of his opponents, Tiglath the bear was ‘tame and caressing’. Buckland even went so far as to provide the bear with a student costume in which he participated fully in university life, especially the wine parties. ‘We had an immense party at the Botanic Gardens,’ Charles Lyell, one of Buckland’s undergraduates, recalled. ‘Young Buckland had a bear, “Tig” dressed up as a student complete with cap and gown.’ Tiglath Pileser was formally introduced to senior figures at the university. ‘It was diverting to see two or three of the dons not knowing what to do for fear their dignity was compromised.’

“Most perplexing of all for visitors to Buckland’s apartments was the menu, since Buckland, a born experimentalist, had decided to eat his way through the animal kingdom as well as study it. ‘I recollect various queer dishes which he had at his table,’ recalled his friend John Playfair. ‘The hedgehog was a good experiment and both Liebig and I thought it good and tender. On another occasion I recollect a dish of crocodile, which was an utter failure . . . though the philosophers took one mouthful, they could not be persuaded to swallow it and rejected the morsel with strong language.’”

Published in: on November 17, 2008 at 3:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Flu Facts & Fallacies

The flu season is now upon us, and a number of recent publications are available to keep you informed about the risks of flu and available methods of prevention and treatment.

This week’s featured publication at the Federal Citizen Information Center is a two-page summary document entitled The Flu, which emphasizes that a flu shot “prevents the flu in 70% to 90% of young, healthy adults,” while also noting that “the shot doesn’t do as well at preventing flu in older adults and people with certain medical problems. But the shot does reduce the number of these people who die or need a hospital stay because of the flu.”

Similarly, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, along with much other information, explains What’s the Difference Between Seasonal Flu, Pandemic Flu, and Avian (Bird) Flu?. (Be sure to check out their online brochures on Prevention and Treatment as well.)

In related news, Science Daily has recently reported that the Center for Disease Control now recommends that parents immunize children from 6 months to 18 years of age .

In a cautionary note against extreme optimism, however, see the New Scientist article from November 7th cautioning that Flu Shots Save Fewer Lives Than Thought.

For Haysville citizens, note that tomorrow afternoon from 1:30 to 3:30 (November 18) flu shots will be available for the public at the new Haysville Senior Center. For details, contact the Senior Center or city offices.

Published in: on November 17, 2008 at 12:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

America Recycles Day

My Kansas Department of Health and Environment calendar informs me that today is America Recycles Day – a reminder that it’s past time to remove the old newspapers from the garage and take them to the rhino lunchbox (aka newspaper recycling dumpster) in the Homeland parking lot and drop another load of aluminum cans by the Humane Society. (I disavow all responsibility for creating the newspaper piles and empty cans; it’s simply my mission to dispose of them responsibly.) Will my doing so make any real difference? If you have questions about that and other environmental conundrums, see yesterday’s New Scientist feature on Dumb Eco-Questions You Were Afraid to Ask. As you may already suspect, the questions seem a lot less dumb when you read the answers.

(One example: “According to Alcoa, the world’s third-largest aluminum producer, manufacturing a can from recycled aluminum uses only 5 percent of the energy of making one from scratch — an energy saving that could power a 100-watt bulb for 4 hours.”)

Postscript: My only significant reservation about New Scientist‘s list is the answer provided to the question “what is the single most effective thing I can do for the environment?” In this one instance, the answer, not the question, is dumb.

Published in: on November 15, 2008 at 3:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Archaeopteryx: Fight or Flight

Archaeopteryx lithographica at Berlin's Humboldt Museum.

Archaeopteryx lithographica at Berlin's Humboldt Museum.


A Brief Review of Paul Chambers’ Bones of Contention: The Archaeopteryx Scandals

Early this next year, in February, we’ll be observing the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth (in February – the very same day that Abraham Lincoln was born). Somewhat later in the year we’ll also be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s revolutionary The Origin of Species. Few scientific publications have engendered more controversy, more profoundly altered our perceptions, or precipitated more subsequent revelations than this single illuminating book.

Within two years of the publication of Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) theory of evolution by means of natural selection, an amazing fossil discovery was made in a small quarry in Germany — Archaeopteryx lithographica, a remarkable creature intermediate in form between reptile and bird. Paul Chamber’s exquisite and delightful book is an exploration of the history of that fossil, the controversies which arose from its discovery, and the controversies which have continued to surround its existence to the present day. It is an engaging and fascinating story, well worth reading for anyone interested in paleontotology, the origin of birds, the nature of dinosaurs and a host of related topics. (Note, however, that the editing process seems to have been a bit weak in creating the final text, including one screamer where the word “astrology” appears instead of the obviously intended “astronomy.”)

A few selected excerpts may convey the sense and tenor of the book:

“On the podium Huxley began his talk in a sombre tone. ‘We who believe in evolution are often asked to produce solid evidence to prove our theories. If one animal group can evolve into another then why do we have so many gaps in the fossil record? Where, ask our critics, are the missing links? Tonight I believe that this question can at last be answered by looking at that most isolated group of living animals, the birds.’

“He continued by explaining that whilst many evolutionists had long believed the birds to have been descended from the reptiles, the proof had yet to be forthcoming. In searching for this proof it was necessary to ask two simple questions:
— Are there any fossil birds which show greater reptilian characteristics than any living bird?
— Are there any fossil reptiles which are more bird-like than any living reptile?
‘I believe,’ said the serious-looking Huxley, ‘that I can answer both questions in the affirmative.’ With no further ado he introduced his audience to the Archaeopteryx and to a small meat-eating (theropod) dinosaur called Compsognathus, also from the Solnhofen limestone.

“As he stood before them, Huxley patiently pointed out the numerous similarities between the skeleton of Archaeopteryx and that of the dinosaur Compsognathus. The similarities were indeed obvious for all to see. To all intents and purposes Compsognathus was identical to Archaeopteryx, except for the feathers. The similarities between the tail, arms, claws, legs, feet and pelvis of both animals were so close as to be outstanding. Effectively Huxley was saying that Archaeopteryx had been a dinosaur with feathers.

“‘Birds,’ he confidently stated, ‘are evolved from the dinosaurs and the proof is here in these fossils. These are your missing links.'”
“That year [1872] Marsh had returned from an extensive fossil-collecting trip in Kansas. Among his haul was an excellent, but headless, skeleton of the ancient bird Hesperornis, a flightless two-metre-high giant which swam and hunted in the Cretaceous seas of of 75 million years ago. After the controversial Archaeopteryx, Hesperornis was the second-oldest known fossil bird but no complete specimens had been found. For years odd bits and pieces of its bones had been recovered from Kansas. These bones were just about recognizable as being avian but the real nature of the beast had yet to be seen. Now Marsh’s 1872 expedition had produced the first complete skeleton of Hesperornis.

“Since his viewing of the Archaeopteryx, Marsh had been fascinated by bird evolution and he knew the scientific appeal that the subject still held but his Hesperornis skeleton was without a skull and so would have to wait its turn to be studied. In the meantime he ordered one of his assistants to keep an eye open for any more specimens that might come to light. A few months later a box full of scrappy and unprepared fossils arrived on Marsh’s desk, none of which looked terribly promising. Nonetheless, amongst the rubble were some small skull and jaw fragments which were accompanied by a note:
‘The hollow bones are part of a bird, and the two jaws belong to a saurian. The latter is peculiar, and I wish I had some of the vertebrae for comparison with other Kansas species.’
Marsh ordered the bones to be cleaned. When the delicate specimens were returned to him, he was astounded. The bones were from a new type of ancient bird, which Marsh named Ichthyornis, but the fossil jaws were puzzling. Marsh was at first unsure, describing the jaws as being from a new type of reptile which he named Colonosaurus but something did not seem right and a few weeks later he returned to the specimen, ordering them to be further prepared. At last Marsh realized that the jaws and the bones of Ichthyornis actually belonged to the same animal. Although it resembled a modern bird, Ichthyornis had a jaw that was unmistakably filled with a row of tiny needle-like teeth. It was a eureka moment and one that would be the making of Marsh.

“Ten years earlier the scientific establishment (including Thomas Huxley) had firmly rejected John Evans’ discovery of the Archaeopteryx’s toothed jaw: a bird with teeth would have backed up the idea that the Archaeopteryx was a bird-reptile cross. Now here was evidence that simply could not be ignored. There were unquestionably birds with teeth living during the time of the dinosaurs.

“Whereas the Archaeopteryx’s skeleton would have been described as being that of a reptile if it were not for the impressions of feathers around it, that of Ichthyornis was unmistakably a bird even though no fossil feathers had been found with it.”
“The success of Ichthyornis and Hesperornis persuaded Marsh that he needed more and better specimens so that he could write a more detailed description. Fortunately for him, the fossil birds of Kansas proved to be more abundant than those of the Solnhofen quarries of Germany and in 1876 alone three beautiful specimens of Hesperornis came to light complete with their toothed skulls. They arrived just in the nick of time, for in August of that year Huxley was to make his first visit to the United States . . .”

Published in: on November 13, 2008 at 3:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Veterans Day 2008


If you’re seeking information on events, historical facts or practical matters about veterans on this Veterans Day 2008, you can’t do any better than the Department of Veterans Affairs official veterans day website. Links are included to veterans day history, a veterans website for kids, resources for teachers, and much else.

The Infoplease website also offers a host of information and links of relevance.

Published in: on November 11, 2008 at 10:01 am  Comments (1)  

Preview 3: How the Scots Invented the Modern World

Arthur Herman on Historical Irony:

Discussing the prominence of Scots in European medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries, Arthur Herman observes that “students flocked in from across the country — since in medicine as in everything else, Oxford and Cambridge were closed off to non-Anglicans. Edinburgh became the preeminent place in Europe for the study of anatomy. The school used human cadavers for dissection in such record numbers that supplying new ones became a problem.” At this juncture he comments in a rare footnote:

“That led two enterprising Irish scoundrels, William Burke and William Hare, to offer a steady supply of dead bodies to anatomy professor Robert Knox with no questions asked — steady because they began murdering the victims themselves. When their hideous enterprise was revealed in 1829, the trial of Burke and Hare caused a major scandal. The grisly story inspired, among others, Robert Louis Stebenson’s short story ‘The Body Snatcher.’ Know himself was never charged, while Hare turned king’s evidence. William Burke went to the gallows — and ended up as a cadaver for dissection at the medical school. His skeleton is still there, preserved in its museum.”

Published in: on November 7, 2008 at 12:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Holiday Travel – Flight Delay Information


As we approach the peak travel season of the year, one website that may prove useful to those planning visits during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays is the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center, which offers a nationwide map of major hub airports with color-coded status reports on Flight Delay Information. A text-only report on the status of major airports is also available.

Published in: on November 5, 2008 at 11:41 am  Leave a Comment  

Trends in College Pricing & Student Aid

In late October, the College Board announced that college prices for the 2008-09 academic year have risen just slightly faster than the Consumer Price Index. They also suggest that while more student financial aid is available than ever before, the number of private loans available for higher education had begun to shrink even before the recent credit crisis hit.

The College Board has issued two new reports related to college pricing and student aid which may be helpful to students, parents, families and policymakers, Trends in College Pricing and Trends in Student Aid.

Published in: on November 5, 2008 at 11:18 am  Leave a Comment  

Preview 2: How the Scots Invented the Modern World

More from Arthur Herman’s excellent How the Scots Invented the Modern World on America’s Scotch-Irish heritage:

“From the point of view of the colonial government and locals, they had come at the right time. English emigration to America had fallen off; and non-English settlers such as Germans and Hugenot French had not yet appeared in large numbers. The Scotch-Irish settlements began pushing the frontier further and deeper into the Appalachians. Unlike many of their early English predecessors, they did not expect an easy time of it. Prepared for the worst, they carved a new life for themselves out of the wilderness, taking land from neighbors or natives when it suited them. The habits of colonizing Ireland and seizing arable land from Catholic enemies carried over to the New World. Their insatiable desire for land, and the willingness to fight and die to keep it, laid the foundation of the frontier mentality of the American West.

“They settles in small farm communities, usually on the lee side of a ridge or in a creek hollow, clustering together according to family or region, like their remote Highland ancestors. A typical farm consisted of a ‘cowpen’ or livestock corral of a sort familiar to a Lowland or Border farmer, and a cabin built of logs. The archetypal dwelling of the American frontier, the log cabin, was in fact a Scots development, if not invention. The word itself, cabine, meant any sort of rude enclosure or hut, made of stone and dirt in Scotland, or sod and mud in Ireland.

“Across southwest Virginia, North Carolina, and eventually Tennessee, their extended families spread out – Alexanders, Ashes, Caldwells, Campbells, Calhouns, Montgomerys, Donelsons, Gilchrists, Knoxes, and Shelbys – establishing a network of clanlike alliances and new settlements. They named their communities – such as Orange County (in North Carolina), Orangeburg (in South Carolina), Galloway, Derry, Durham, Cumberland (after the Border county in England), Carlisle, and Aberdeen – after the places and loyalties they had left behind. In North Carolina they founded towns called Enterprise, Improvement, and Progress; and in Georgia and western Virginia, towns called Liberty.

“Placenames and language reflected their northern Irish or southern Lowlands origins. They said ‘whar’ for ‘where,’ ‘thar’ for ‘there,’ ‘critter,’ for ‘creature,’ ‘nekkid’ for ‘naked,’ ‘widder’ for ‘widow,’ and ‘young-uns’ for ‘young ones.’ They were always ‘fixin’’ to do something, or go ‘sparkin’’ instead of ‘courting,’ and the young’uns ‘growed up’ instead of ‘grew up.’ As David Hackett Fisher has suggested, these were the first utterings of the American dialect of Appalachian mountaineers, cowboys, truck drivers, and backcountry politicians. The language was also shamelessly intimate and earthy: passersby were addressed as ‘honey’ and children as ‘little shits.’ They dubbed local landmarks Gallows Branch or Cuttthroat Gap or Shitbritches Creek (in North Carolina). . . .

“Neighbors, including the Indians, soon learned to treat them with respect, not to say fear. One Englishman described an Ulster Scot neighbor: ‘His looks spoke out that he would not fear the devil, should he meet him face to face.’ They did not bear much resemblance to their compatriot, Francis Hutcheson. Instead, Ulster Scots were quick-tempered, inclined to hard work followed by bouts of boisterous leisure and heavy drinking (they were the first distillers of whisky in the New World, employing native corn and rye instead of Scotch barley), and easy to provoke into fighting. The term used to describe them was rednecks, a Scots border term meaning Presbyterians. Another was cracker, from the Scots word craik for ‘talk,’ meaning a loud talker or braggart. Both words became permanent parts of the American language, and a permanent part of the identity of the Deep South the Ulster Scots created.

“One reason their cultural impact was so widespread was that they were constantly moving. It was said that no Scotch-Irish family felt comfortable until it had moved twice. Even before the Susquehanna and Cumberland valleys were fully settled, they were pushing into Virginia and the Carolinas. The governors of these colonies, Scots themselves, welcomed the new settlers; Ulster Scots began arriving in large numbers in the 1720s and 1730s, and under Governor Gabriel Johnson, a native of Dumfriesshire, expansion came to include Highland immigrants after the Forty-five. By 1760, North Carolina was practically Little Scotland: a ‘Mac-ocracy,’ in the words of one of the Ulstermen’s enemies. By the end of the century, some were moving into Georgia, and as far south as the Savannah River.

“The Scotch-Irish South was a breeding ground for a type of strong, independent man and woman, a school for natural leaders. Andrew Jackson was son of an Ulster Scot immigrant, Hugh Jackson, a wealthy weaver and merchant from Carrickfergus. In 1765 he led a group of emigrants to America into South Carolina. His son was a typical product of the tight-knit, tough, and quarrelsome culture of Ulster Scot Carolina, and chose his wife from a similar Scotch-Irish clan. Another immigrant, Captain Robert Polk, had joined the parade of emigrants from County Donegal for the New World slightly earlier. His son settled in Virginia, and his five children, Robert’s grandchildren, ended up in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. James Knox Polk was born there in 1795, eventually representing his state as senator and still later serving as twelfth President of the United States.

“. . . John Henry emigrated from Scotland around 1730; he numbered among his relations on his mother’s side that stalwart of the Moderate literati William Robertson. He settled in Hanover County, Virginia, which was quickly becoming home to Scots and Ulster Scot families, and married another relative, Sarah Syme. Their son Patrick Henry was born in 1736. His most famous maxim, ‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’ abruptly but perfectly encapsulates the mentality of these backcountry Scottish communities, in which living as you pleased – a crude homegrown version of Hutcheson’s notion of man’s moral liberty – was a matter of birthright. In 1768 Mecklenberg County even told the North Carolina colonial assembly, ‘We shall ever be more ready to support the government under which we find the most liberty.’

“Defending that liberty against all challengers required force of will and a keen sense of valor. Here, in America, a warrior ethos took root, which was as fierce and violent as that of any Highland clan. President Andrew Jackson would remember his mother telling him, ‘Never tell a lie, nor take what is not your own, nor sue anybody for slander, assault or battery. Always settle them cases yourself.’ One day she scolded him: ‘Stop that, Andrew. Do not let me see you cry again. Girls were made to cry, not boys.’ ‘What are boys made for, mother? he asked. She answered, ‘To fight.’

“Jackson spent his life fighting, both as a soldier and as a gentleman of honor in duels that took the lives of two opponents. Dueling, and the code of honor that went with it, became embedded in Southern culture. Men defended themselves with their fists, knives, and muskets. Training with a gun and target practice were standard parts of a boy’s, and sometimes a girl’s, training for dealing with the real world. Running battles or feuds between backcountry families were as common, and as vicious, as any between Scottish Borders dynasties or Highland clans – the epic Highland clashes of Campbells and MacDonalds would later be matched in backcountry America by those of the Hatfields and McCoys.

“To see justice done, men were prepared to take the law into their own hands. In the Carolinas, bands of vigilantes or Regulators crisscrossed the territory in the late 1760s, stamping out local hooligans and waging war on interlopers. This vigilante attitude was epitomized by a Scots Border descendent from Pittsylvania County, Virginia, named Captain William Lynch. He ruled as virtual dictator of his county, punishing wrongdoers and warning lawless elements that ‘we will inflict such corporal punishment on him or them, as to us shall seem adequate to the crime committed or the damage sustained.’ ‘Lynch’s Law,’ and the punishments and hangings it inflicted, also became part of American culture – an ugly part, but a legacy of a harsh world and a harsh, unforgiving people.

“The Presbyterian Ulster Scots also brought over their burning hatred of Episcopalians (especially since, as British subjects, they had to pay taxes for the established Anglican Church in America). When one Anglican missionary tried to preach in the Carolina mountains, the locals ‘disrupted his services, rioted while he preached, started a pack of dogs fighting outside the church, loosed his horse, stole his church key, refused him food and shelter, and gave two barrels of whisky to his congregation.’ The missionary, an Englishman, learned to hate his would-be Scotch-Irish converts with a passion. ‘They delight in their present low, lazy, sluttish, heathenish, hellish life,’ he wrote, ‘and seem not desirous of changing it.’”

Published in: on November 5, 2008 at 1:01 am  Leave a Comment  

Need To Know Where To Vote, But Too Shy To Ask Your Librarian?

If you need to find your voting place, and have no other tools but a computer and the internet, go to the Kansas Voter View website. All you need to know is your first and last names and date of birth.

Published in: on November 4, 2008 at 11:07 am  Leave a Comment  

Hitler’s Private Library

In the month before its demise, the New York Sun printed an interesting review by Sir Ian Kershaw of Timothy Ryback’s Hitler’s Private Library. In Kershaw’s estimation the work largely confirms what we previously knew of Hitler’s “intellectual” development, quoting a selection in which Ryback describes it as “not a profound, unfathomable distillation of the philosophies of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, but instead a dime-story theory cobbled together from cheap, tendentious paperbacks and esoteric hardcovers, which gave rise to a thin, calculating, bully mendacity rather than some profoundly grounded source of evil, less the triumph of the will than of the shrill.” Just so. In Kershaw’s words, “just how many of these books ‘ shaped his life,’ as the subtitle has it, remains unclear. For one whose professed mode of reading was to confirm his pre-existing views, the claim that any book was for him a decisive influence is difficult to uphold.” Nevertheless, “Mr. Ryback has produced a valuable short addition to attempts to understand this strange man whose impact on the world was so baleful and of such unparalleled destruction.”

Published in: on November 4, 2008 at 10:38 am  Leave a Comment  

Flu Season Resources

With autumn now well underway, we’re approaching the cold and flu season. In accord with the notion that a gram of knowledge and an ounce of prevention are worth a pound of cure, the Centers for Disease Control offers a Seasonal Flu website with a broad range of useful information from basic facts about the disease to preventive measures and a series of downloadable and printable charts for the workplace. The website also includes FluView – a weekly flu report, complete with graphs, a nationwide map and voluminous detailed information.

If you need to find the nearest flu clinic to arrange for the flu vaccine for yourself or others, the American Lung Association offers an online flu clinic locator.

Ask your librarian if you need assistance in finding further information, and have a safe and healthy fall and winter.

Published in: on November 4, 2008 at 12:16 am  Leave a Comment