Sunday, May 31, 2009

Alexander von Humboldt Celebration

Summertime's gettin' here FINALLY, and with it, the blessed relief of FIELD WORK!!!! Still a few weeks to go, of course, but we're gettin' there, slow and steady!

Anyway, to celebrate this auspicious annual event, let's remember the scientist who for all intents and purposes, is the Patron Saint of Field Work...Alexander von Humboldt! May 2009 is the 150th anniversary of this great scientists death (specifically May 6th, so we're a little late). Humboldt was a German naturalist and botanist, and was famous for his extensive field work in Latin America...and I mean EXTENSIVE. Ol' Humboldt was one of the first "modern scientists", who went about his work in Latin America with that monomaniacal methodical madness that signifies the True Field Scientist (TM).

If you've read The Voyage of The Beagle, then you'll know that Humboldt's careful methods and emphasis on field data were a major source of inspiration to Charles Darwin. And, of course, you've heard of the Humboldt Current, right? Named after him! Read some more about him here!

Anyway, when you're lucky enough to be out in the field, doing some work and engaging in the tried and true method of field science, give a tip o' the hat to Alexander von Humboldt, one of the Greats!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Cryptozoology and the History of Science!!!

It's long been known that the psuedo-sciences are bad for your blood-pressure, whether it's creationists or homeopaths or AIDS/HIV deniers or Anti-Vaxxers or Embiggening Earthers. They just make me mad! But of all the pseudo-science wacknuttery out there, I actually have a great deal of sympathy for the poor, lonely, grumpy Cryptozoologist.

Of all the branches of the pseudo-scientific tumbleweed that blows around the fringe-intellectual landscape, cryptozoology is the closest thing in spirit to Real Science (TM). The cryptozoologists are a lot like us, in that they have a legitimate love of critters, the environment, and the general rad-ness of the World. Of course, where we find beauty and wonder in the scientific exploration of the world around us, the cryptozoologist eschews biology and ecology for a more populist-style of old school prophet/naturalist, wandering the wilds and shaking their fists at the rest of us. Still, given as much disdain as they often show for basic field biology and science in general, I love 'em anyway! It's hard not to be charmed by their enthusiasm (often evidenced with just a hint of vitriol on the pre-eminent cryptozoology site on the web, Loren Coleman's Cryptomundo site); you can see something of what made us all go into the sciences reflected in their wild-eyed cryptid hunts.

Of course, the REALLY interesting part of cryptozoology is that skewed nature; what makes some folks into cryptozoologists, and makes others into biologists? And what makes cryptozoology so damn interesting to the public at large? Good luck finding something on The Science Channel or Discovery dealing with the intricacies of ecology, or the comparative anatomy of coelomates! But I guarantee that there is a show on RIGHT NOW about Bigfoot or Alien Big Cats or Mkoele Mbembe somewhere on one of those "scienceish" channels. Why!?!

Well, due to my inside track to the world of The History of Science (thanks Megan!), maybe we'll have some scholarly insight into Cryptozoology world. Joshua Blu Buhs has written a book entitled Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend (click on the link for an excerpt and and interview). The synopsis of the book sounds pretty nifty:

Last August, two men in rural Georgia announced that they had killed Bigfoot.
The claim drew instant, feverish attention, leading to more than 1,000 news
stories worldwide—despite the fact that nearly everyone knew it was a hoax.
Though Bigfoot may not exist, there’s no denying Bigfoot mania.

With Bigfoot, Joshua Blu Buhs traces the wild and wooly story of America’s favorite homegrown monster. He begins with nineteenth-century accounts of wildmen roaming the forests of America, treks to the Himalayas to reckon with the Abominable Snowman, then takes us to northern California in 1958, when reports of a hairy hominid loping through remote woodlands marked Bigfoot’s emergence as a modern marvel. Buhs delves deeply into the trove of lore and misinformation that has sprung up around Bigfoot in the ensuing half century. We meet charlatans,
pseudo-scientists, and dedicated hunters of the beast—and with Buhs as our
guide, the focus is always less on evaluating their claims than on understanding
why Bigfoot has inspired all this drama and devotion in the first place. What
does our fascination with this monster say about our modern relationship to
wilderness, individuality, class, consumerism, and the media?

Writing with a scientist’s skepticism but an enthusiast’s deep engagement, Buhs invests the story of Bigfoot with the detail and power of a novel, offering the definitive take on this elusive beast.

I don't know if the cryptozoologists out there are going to like it, but I think it sounds pretty neat! Might make some good readin' for the field, while we're out there contemplating geology and the wonder of the real world!

Saturday, May 9, 2009


A quick post as the semester wraps up (finally!), illustrating tafoni! Huzzah! The two pictures below are from the Wilkins Peak Member of the Green River Formation, in SW Wyoming.

Tafoni are scoopish-pits in granular rocks (like sandstones...) that are (probably) caused by weathering of differentially cemented zones in the rock.

And by the way, "tafoni" is apparently the plural...the singular is "tafone". Now you know!

EDIT: Yet more Tafoni on the internets! Check out Michael's post on his blog, Through The Sandglass!

EDIT EDIT: Jumpin' Cats! Michael is the Tafoni King at his blog...AND I HAD NO IDEA! Here and Here! Read!

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

What's the harm?

Well, Spring has certainly sprung! Leaves are greenin' up, sun (and rain) is back in the forecast, and the steady creep of "Field Season Anticipation Madness" (FSAM) is slowly overwhelming my ability to sit and work in the dept.

Anyway, if all this springy weather is making you feel TOO HAPPY, you can always go over to What's The Harm? and read some horrible stories of people dying due to stupid psuedo-science and ridiculous superstition. Nothin' like some awful stories of human ignorance and death to take the edge off that sunny afternoon, right!?!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Fixin' Edumacation...

As bad as some folks think grad school is, there are WORSE ways to go about it...

Seized (violently) from here.

Maybe this whole "education" thing isn't as bad as it could be!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

"Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning"

Mark Taylor, the Chair of the Religion Dept at Columbia, has a pretty interesting Op-Ed piece in the New Yorker, entitled "End the University as We Know It". It's a pretty radical piece of writing that advocates a complete restructuring of the University System, and especially grad school. In fact, the piece starts off with:

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in
American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates
for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is
diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in
journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a
rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

A pretty grim pronouncement...with an uncomfortable degree of truth, probably.

Anyway, Taylor suggests that higher education is in dire need of complete restructuring. To this end, he suggests that we take the following steps:

1. Completely restructure the curriculum: Taylor wants to get rid of the tiered learning structure, and replace it with a "web-like" system of learning and scholarship, with an emphasis on cross-disciplinary education, which leads to his second point...

2. Abolish permanent departments: Taylor does not like the traditional disciplines. Rather, he suggests organizing university programs around questions or research problems, drawing on a range of expertise to interrogate a variety of topics.

3. Increase inter-institutional collaborations: and Taylor doesn't want to just stop there...he wants different universities and institutes to augment their research with workers from elsewhere.

4. Kill the standard model of The Dissertation: probably the easiest sell, right? 600+ page tomes that no one will ever read, AND you have to re-format everything anyway to gets papers out of it? Yes please.

5. Expand the range of professional options for grad students: meaning that they don't JUST TA or RA for their Profs, but do other things (Taylor is a little vague, here)

6. Impose mandatory retirement, and abolish tenure, requiring professors to keep their work new and exciting.

While I agree with the frustration that Taylor feels for higher education (ESPECIALLY in regards to the Dissertation and getting rid of tenure for profs) , I'm not sure if this is the right way to go about reformatting the University. In particular, the perpetual call for "more interdisciplinary work" is always a little bothersome; what exactly is meant by "more interdisciplinary", and how are you supposed to implement it without a sound grounding in the basics of some standard discipline?

What do you guys think?