Sunday, August 15, 2010

Summer reading...

All right, in keeping with a recent theme among paleo bloggers I'll hop on this bandwagon too (I hear they have a keg). Like everybody else, I finished Paul Brinkman's book "The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush" about a month ago, and enjoyed it very much. I'll quote below my excellent Amazon review just to save myself the typing:

"Like a time machine:
An exhaustively researched history of a formative time in Vertebrate Paleontology. Beyond being an entertaining record of the successes and frustrations of these early workers in the field, this book serves as an excellent resource for both modern paleontologists and the interested public to understand how the discipline was shaped. From discovery to display, we learn how a surplus of scientific curiosity, the tenacity to brave threatening weather and landscape, skill in the field, and an extraordinary amount of luck must combine to haul these beasts back by wagon and rail to the laboratories of the nation's great museums where they are brought back to life. A quote from Yale paleontologist Richard Swann Lull sums it up, 'The old-time expeditions were staged in the real West, at a time when lack of means of transportation... together with the very intimate contact every fossil hunter must have with his physical surroundings- with fatigue, heat and cold, hunger and thirst- made the search for the prehistoric a real adventure suited to red-blooded men.'
Having worked at several of the institutions and field areas featured within, and with senior generations of paleontologists who knew personally the major characters, this book has provided me with fascinating context and closer ties to the genesis of paleo as we know it today."

I'll say further that one of the things that I appreciate about this book is the fact that Paul has spent much of his museum career working in what are often called "support staff" positions; from field hand, to the prep lab, and collections. This brings a different perspective to the reporting of events, and allows the historian and the reader to understand with a greater depth the motivations behind many of the decisions made.

Another new book on my reading list was "Barnum Brown: The Man Who Discovered Tyrannosaurus rex" by Lowell Dingus and Mark Norell. Reading parts of this book while in the field in Wyoming this summer was great, I knew comparatively little about this iconic figure in paleontology before I began the book, and to realize to what extent I have walked in his footsteps, both in the field and through museums, is pretty exciting, as well as humbling. To have the scale of his collecting summarized in this way was great.

I am now wrapping up the excellent biography of the geologist/cartographer William Smith, The Map That Changed The World. While I have always had a strong interest in history in general, and specifically history of science, I'm finding as I age that understanding events that shaped the field as we know it now is ever more important to understanding today and the future. This is certainly a "Duh" comment, and of course a point that I've always understood intellectually, however reading these books this summer has helped to shape some of my own future goals in ways that I hadn't quite expected, specifically the first two.

Now not all of my reading this summer has been work related, I've also finished Haruki Murakami's short memoir "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" and "Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World", and the posthumously published Phillip K. Dick non-scifi novel "Humpty Dumpty in Oakland." The second book is by Berkeley geographer Trevor Paglin, and while the dust jacket makes it out to be something of a high octane romp through clandestine sites (thinking bouncing around the deserts in a Land Rover in aviator glasses, and a photographer's vest), the book is actually much better than that. From the perspective of a geographer, this book serves as more of a history of secrecy in the American government, specifically the military industrial complex, targeting with disbelief the concept of officially disavowing the existence of things that are clearly right there (i.e. satellites, air bases, prisons).

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

7000 of anything is a lot,

even if it is just phonograph needles. These were manufactured at some point before 1954 when Pfanstiehl Chemical Corporation changed their name to Pfansteihl Laboratories. Why do I look these things up? Apparently I don't have enough to do. I'm looking for a volunteer to count them all and see how many needles have been used in the past 56 years. I'm guessing about 30.

[Edited to answer a very good question, this was supposed to be part of the original post]

Q:Were these used as blanks to make needle styli for mechanical prep?
A:Yes, in fact, in the old days before drill bits or carbide were cheap enough or readily accessible enough, phonograph needles were used as a stylus to pick grains of rock from specimens. In lieu of the handy pin vises we use today, these styli would be pounded into a dowel rod, much like many inexpensive dissecting probes are constructed today.

Thanks to Dr. Wann Langston Jr. for comments on the historical background.