Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Help another blogger

After you were all so good helping me, I know you're a generous lot and will heed another call from a blogger in need. Rumproast blogger StrangeAppar8us suffered a traumatic brain injury on November 3. The injury required surgery, he is still in the hospital, and will need extensive rehabilitation. The injury also left him blind. The bills for all this are going to be astronomical, far beyond the ability of a church bake sale or bartered chicken to handle. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't at least try to defray some of his expenses. His fellow bloggers at Rumproast are taking donations to buy specialized computer equipment so that he can start writing again. They are also setting up a permanent fund to help with his ongoing expenses. If you can, send a few bucks his way and help spread the word. Thanks.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The first trilobite

Note: This post was selected for last year's The Open Laboratory: The Year's Best Writing on Science Blogs.

In their early days, scientific journals were much more generous than they are today about publishing letters from experimenters and collectors in all walks of life. The hard wall between scientists and amateurs had not yet been built and all literate people were, in theory, entitled to participate in the discussion. One such person was Rev. Edward Lhwyd (or Lhuyd or Lhwid or Lloyd), the illegitimate son of a member of the minor gentry who rose from genteel poverty to become keeper of collections at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (an unpaid position, but important in the community of science). The 1698 volume of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific journal in the English language, contains "Part of a Letter from Mr. Edw. Lhwyd to Dr. Martin Lister, Fell. of the Coll. of Phys. and R. S. Concerning Several Regularly Figured Stones Lately Found by Him." The two-page letter is accompanied by a page of etchings of the figured stones or, as we would call them, fossils.

Lhwyd collected his fossils during a trip to Southwestern Wales. Number fifteen, in his etchings, he found near Llandeilo, probably on the grounds of Lord Dynefor's castle. He wrote of it: "The 15th whereof we found great Plenty, must doubtless be referred to the Sceleton of some flat Fish..." A century and a half after he wrote that, Sir Roderick Murchison would place the Llandeilo rocks in the middle strata of his Ordovician Period. A century after Murchison, scientists would date that strata between 461-63 million years old. That is less than ten million years after the first plants took root on dry land and a hundred million years before cockroaches crawled out of the sea looking for a snack.

Lhwyd's "flatfish." Today we call it Ogygiocarella debuchii (Brongniart).

Lhwyd's identification of number fifteen as a flatfish didn't last very long. Today anyone with even a casual knowledge of fossils will recognise it as a trilobite, something more like a shrimp than a halibut. Lhwyd didn't have our advantage of hundreds of years of fossil studies producing thousands of lavishly illustrated and easily accessible books. It would be almost a century before the word "trilobite" would be coined and into Murchison's time before the scientific world would realize that trilobites were not related to halibut or shrimp (or oysters, another contender) but, rather, something entirely their own. Lhwyd was plunging ahead in the dark trying to make sense of an unfamiliar and mysterious corner of nature.

Lhwyd deserves great credit for deciding his little flatfish was worthy of notice and for sending his drawings to the Royal Society, although, sometimes, he gets a little too much credit. His illustration is the first published scientific illustration of a trilobite that we know of, but he did not "discover" trilobites, as some books will tell you. We should always regard any claim that someone discovered a fossil species with suspicion. Trilobites are extremely common fossils and can be found laying on the surface in many parts of the world. Our ancestors were both aware of fossils and, in many cases, aware that they were the petrified remains of once living things. Usually, what an author means when they declare that this person or that person discovered a fossil is that they were the first to describe the fossil in scientific literature. Lhwyd's illustration certainly counts as a description in that sense, but it is not the first description we know of.

No one can say when people first noticed that fossils were different than other rocks except to say that it was very long ago. The first step in making stone tools is to examine stones very carefully, so it is possible that our ancestors were aware of organic patterns in rocks over a million years ago. For trilobites, specifically, the earliest evidence of humans treating a fossil as something specially comes from a cave near Yonne, France. In the 1880s, when archaeologists were combing the caves of central France looking for artifacts, bones, and paintings, they discovered a much handled trilobite fossil that had been drilled as if to be worn as a pendant. The cave where it was found is now known as Grotte du Trilobite and is also home to paintings of mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses. Because the pendant was handled so much, the exact species of trilobite cannot be determined, however, geologists can say that it was not originally from Yonne. The original owners of the fossil thought enough of it that they carried or traded it from the other side of France. The occupation strata in which the trilobite was found has been dated as fifteen thousand years old.

The oldest known human trilobite artifact from the Grotte du Trilobite.

In the New World, American fossil hunters found plentiful deposits of trilobites in western Utah in the 1860s, but the local Ute Indians had known about them for untold years. In 1931, Frank Beckwith uncovered evidence of the Ute use of trilobites. Travelling through the badlands, he photographed two petroglyphs that most likely represent trilobites. On the same trip he examined a burial, of unknown age, with a drilled trilobite fossil laying in the chest cavity of the interred. He asked Joe Pichyavit, a Ute friend, friend what the elders said about such fossils. Pickyavit replied that trilobite necklaces were worn as protection against disease and bullets. The local Ute name for trilobite fossils translated roughly as "little water bug in stone," indicating that they recognised the organic nature of fossils. Pickyavit then made a necklace for Beckwith in the old style. Since then, trilobite amulets have been found all over the Great Basin, as well as in British Columbia and Australia.

Probable trilobite petroglyph. Beckwith's label reads "A shield (?) shaped like a trilobite."

Joe Pickyavit's trilobite protective necklace made of fossils, clay beads, and horsehair tassels.

Written descriptions of trilobites before Lhywd date possibly from the third century BC and definitely from the fourth century AD. Most ancient literatures include a genre called lapidaries, catalogs of precious stones and minerals along with their practical uses in medicine and magic (often the same thing). Most of the lapidaries included discussions of fossils and one, On Petrifactions by Theophrastus, was entirely about fossils. Sadly, the book has not survived and we know only short quotes from it in the works of later authors. The Spanish geologists Eladio Liñán and Rodolfo Gozalo argue that some of the fossils described in Greek and Latin lapidaries as scorpion stone, beetle stone, and ant stone refer to trilobite fossils. Less ambiguous references to trilobite fossils can be found in Chinese sources. Fossils from the Kushan formation of northeastern China were prized as inkstones and decorative pieces. A dictionary commentary written around 300AD by Guo Pu, refers to these fossils as bat stones because the spines on the pygidium (rear section) resemble the bones of a bat wing. The Khai-Pao Pharmacopoeia, written in 970 refers to the fossils as stone silkworms. Just nine years before Lhywd sent his letter to the Royal Society, Wang Shizhen wrote about the Kushan formation fossils a narrative of his travels in North China.

None of this should diminish Lhywd's place in the history of paleontology. Lhywd's observations were made within the framework of the emerging Western concept of science. The fossils were not interesting oddities that he found in the course of doing something else; they were the object of his outing. Lhywd took an artist along with him on his trip to Wales for the express purpose of preparing scientific illustrations. He communicated his observations to other scientifically interested people with the understanding that they would get further distribution. Finally, Lhywd gathered his fossils and took them back with him to the Ashmolean Museum where others would be able to study them.

As for number fifteen, it's not clear whether the fossil trilobite itself has survived. Modern curators at the Ashmolean have tried to identify Lhwyd's fossils in their collections. They have one old trilobite that approximately matches number fifteen, but they are unable to make a positive identification. The Romantic in me hopes its the one.

Number fifteen?

And now, a word from our sponsor

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We made the big time

My latest mammothy post is being published in Scientific American's guest blogger series, today. It's a little mystery story about a small drawing of an elephant on a Renaissance map. It's distantly related to a post from this spring. The connection will become more obvious in a few weeks when I publish my third post on the mammoth-walrus-sea monster confusion. Until then, go over to Scientific American and enjoy their bloggy goodness.

A bold alternative to string theory

Yarn Theory

It's best described using fuzzy math.

Rerun season

We might have some sciency visitors today, so I'm going to repeat a few older posts for their enjoyment. I hope you regular readers enjoy them, too.

Friday, November 11, 2011

It's Armistice Day

Today is 11-11-11. For out friends across the sea that's 11-11-11. On this day in 1918, an armistice between the Germany Empire and the Allied Powers ended hostilities on the Western Front. As Germany was the last of the Central Powers still fighting, this essentially ended the Great War. In many countries, today is a holiday. In the US, we call it Veteran's Day. In most countries, today is the day that they remember those who died in war. In the US, Memorial Day, under various names, was already set aside for that purpose and Armistice Day eventually evolved into a day to recognise the service of living veterans.

Something in the neighborhood of sixty five million people served in the combined militaries of all the countries invoved in World War One. Today, only two are alive. When they are gone, the great War will truely have passed into history. The only vet whose service can be verified by records is Florence Green, who served in the Women's Royal Air Force during the last months of the war. In the US we have Andy Rasch, who claims to have run away at age sixteen and joined the Navy when we entered the war. It would be churlish to deny his his moment, so let's raise a glass to Andy and Florence.

And let's see that our living veterans get a fair shake for their service.

Monday, November 07, 2011

You guys are the best

I want to thank all of the people who have responded kindly to our plight: the retweeters, the bloggers, Facebookians, new customers, and those who dropped a kind word. It makes things a lot less painful to know that there are people like you out there.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

I've just been Borazed

It's kind of like being Pharangulated, but it doesn't sound quite as dirty.

Welcome everyone.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

The silver lining

An upside to begging is that today has been the blog's best trafficked day in months. And Saturdays are usually the slowest days. I wonder what will happen if I beg again on Monday.

We're broke

I didn't want to write this, but it is finally time to surrender my pride and start begging.

Tessa and I are unemployed, over 55, and broke. It's been over four years since I had a full-time job and almost three since she has. I had a part time-job for one of those years and we have both had some contract work as writers, but that has been drying up. We've gone through our savings. We've gone through my inheritance. We've gone through my 401k. Now we're only a few months away from finishing off her 401k. Our next step will be selling our house.

About eight years ago, Tessa started making some soaps and balms for her belly dancing friends. I already had a business license under the name Howling Pig, so I drew up a cute logo for her and she used that as her brand name. Tessa's real strength is in blending scents; the soap was just a medium to make the world a better-smelling place. Her friends loved her products and, encouraged, she started making lotions and body sprays and selling them at belly dancing events. We began talking about Howling Pig as something we might develop into a source of supplemental income for our retirement.

By 2008, I only had a part-time, contract job and Tessa was unhappy and feeling trapped in her full time job. We decided to take a shot at turning Howling Pig into something serious. We built a website, bought some equipment, applied to fairs, bought a tent, had cards and a sign printed, and filed the appropriate tax paperwork with the state. We also decided to sell at a weekly farmers' market. Two weeks after our first market, the stock market tanked. Three months after that, Tessa was laid off when her company decided to move their operations to China.

As I mentioned, we have had some writing jobs since then, but our only regular income has been from Howling Pig. And there hasn't been much of that. The Pig brings in about a tenth of what we need to keep going. In 2009, we thought that if we maintained a presence, we would build a customer base and things would be okay when the economy recovered. It actually looked like that was starting to happen during the first half of 2010. April looked good. May was our best month to date. Then June happened. As soon as the Republicans decided on their election strategy of deficit fear, business went flat and then went down hill. Most market vendors and small businesses I know have experienced the same thing. Gifts and small luxuries are an easy thing for the middle class to give up when they are fearing economic Armageddon.

So, here's the deal. I could put up a PayPal button and ask for direct donations--I probably will, soon. But that's only a temporary fix. I'm sure our online friends would help us cover the bills for a month or two, but what we need is a regular income. I need a job. I'm an experienced writer (help files, documentation, light marketing, UI text), but I'm essentially unemployable (over 55, over-educated, unemployed for over four years, and a resume that looks like an explosion at the jigsaw puzzle factory). Still, the best situation would be if I could get a regular job while Tessa gives Howling Pig a little longer. If anyone has connections in Seattle that need a smart guy, who is a fast learner, and has an amazing skill set and broad knowledge base, please point them at me.

There is something else you can do that is good for you and for us. Buy our stuff. Really. Tessa's scents are unique and wonderful. All of her products are gentle, simple, cruelty free (plant-based ingredients and no animal testing, unless I count), and labeled with an attractive and amusing pig. We're into gift season, now. Buy some for your friends. Buy some for your family. Buy some for yourself. You'll get to do a good deed, you'll get something wonderful in return, and we'll get to remain part of the middle class and keep our house.

Please use your Facebook, Google+, Twitter, or blog to point people at the business website. Thanks. I love you all.