Norfolk is a long way away from anywhere, and if I were you, I shouldn't start from here. By the time you get to the outskirts of Cromer, any distinctions between science, beachcombing, social commentary, writing and animal husbandry have started to blur. When the process is complete, you know you've arrived at the End Of The Pier Show. So, welcome. Find somewhere to park your unicycle. Pull up a girrafe chair. Make yourself comfortable.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

How Not To Get Your Paper Published, No. 161

On receiving the politely worded note of rejection from an editor, designed to let you down gently, respond acidly that you can see through all that claptrap, and didn't expect any better from a publication that published that rubbish from Professors X and Y in last week's issue anyway.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Book News

I´m amazed and pleased to learn that people are still buying and enjoying my gothick museum based detective schlockfest, By The Sea. I suspect that a pussycat of my acquaintance is largely responsible for disseminating news of my scribblings, for which thanks. By The Sea was originally published as a serial on LabLit but you can buy it or download it from Amazon or from Enjoy!

But enough of such japery. Back in 1996 I published a book called Before The Backbone, a graduate level text on the problem of working out the ancestry of the vertebrates. It´s still in print, but prompted by the enthusiasm of colleagues notably Professor M. L. of California, I am thinking of writing a new edition. We´ve passed a lot of water since 1996. Many new and exciting fossils have come to light, many genomes sequenced, and much has been learned even of the basic anatomy and development of vertebrates. Clearly, a new edition could be a good idea and Springer, my publisher, seems interested.

So, if you are a scientist, you might be able to help me out, either yourself or by passing this post to those who might. Springer wants your children feedback, through a long form they´d like me to complete, from those out there in the world of science who use my book, especially those who use it in graduate level classes. Would you like to see a new edition, would you buy it, would you recommend it to your students, and so on and so forth in like fashion. Answers to the usual address, third park bench on the left, The Esplanade, Cromer. In the Town Hall if wet.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why Don´t Scientists Teach Their Children How To Speak?

You have worked, and after that, you have worked some more. You have worked through hours which before you became a graduate student/postdoc/professor/combinations of the foregoing you didn´t know existed except at parties.

You have honed your results, and more than that, you have refined, distilled, cossetted, chivvied and wrenched those results from the darkness of diffuse contradiction and into the light of coherence. From a morass of gels, measurements, heiroglyphs, lowerglyphs, radiographs, micrographs and just plain old-fashioned graphs, you have forged a Story.

You work some more, and after yet more ages of the world, firkins of coffee, relationship break-ups and moves across countries and continents, you get a paper in press in a suitable journal.

Et finalement, as the Apotheosis of your Zenith, you go to a conference to present your results - wrought as they have been over years from your sinews and lifeblood and your very heart - to an audience of your peers.

You prepare for this big occasion as you have never prepared before. You create a presentation in your favourite presentation software, making sure you have summary slides to set out your stall and pull it all together, incorporating snazzy animations, the requisite acknowledgements and a few jokes as counterpoint to the sere data.

You rehearse, and after that, you rehearse some more, until you have it word perfect, and no longer stumble over difficult words such as 1,4-delta tetrahydrocannabinol, Paracyclotosaurus or buttered-toast.

You check the presentation in the conference ready-room. Everything works. Everything is as it should be.

The session moderator introduces you, and you step up on to the podium. The first slide comes up, and you start to speak.

Only nobody can hear you, because you are not speaking into the microphone.

Why Oh Why Oh Why? Why go to all that effort simply to fall at the final hurdle?

Perhaps I have been to too many conferences lately - yet I am forever shocked at how little preparation scientists giving presentations seem to devote to projecting their voices, or if their voices are too weak or the rooms too big, learning how to use a microphone with the same care that they would learn to use the scientific equipment they´ve used to gather their data in the first place.

When presented with a microphone, many scientists seem to react as if they´ve been propositioned by a flasher, and do all they can to stay away from the offending phallic object.

Other scientists will be quite happy using the microphone, but will move towards it and away from it, unaware that microphones, even if switched on, have very specific response characteristics.

Others will tote the microphone quite handily, unaware that it´s not been switched on at all.

Yet others will overcompensate by speaking far too closely to the microphone, almost swallowing it, making noises such as might be made by a cormorant trying to regurgitate a bicycle pedal.

Others will stoop painfully to reach the microphone, or contort themselves into other awkward angles, unaware that microphone stands are fully adjustable.

The audience will get bored. Will fidget. Will walk out. Yours was the Kingdom - but you lost it, all because you forgot to nail the horsehoe properly to the horse, or some other medieval metaphor of like fashion.
What, then, is to be done? The obvious solution is to use tie-clip radio mics and belt packs, but these aren´t always available.

In the end, it all comes down to training. If you are a professor with graduate students and postdocs, make sure that your charges get training in proper microphone technique. Like anything else, there is an art to it, and it takes practice. If you are a graduate student or a postdoc, demand such training.

Me? I was lucky. I got some training during a stint I spent working for the BBC. But most of the training I acquired by accident, in my mis-spent youth (and middle-age), playing in rock bands. Because of that, I now have a good appreciation of platform presentations as performance, and I know how to use a microphone. Perhaps my youth (and middle-age) weren´t so misspent after all.

Perhaps my greatest contribution to the effective dissemination of science will not, in the end, be my books, nor my innumerable articles and blog posts, nor even my long service at your favourite professional science magazine beginning with N, but in teaching people how to use a microphone properly. My rates will be reasonable. though commensurate to the importance you attach to such training, given that you´ll have asked me to help you in the first place.

If you want me. I´ll be in the lobby, waiting for the limo.

The Maison Des Girrafes Caption Competition #99

Feeding time, Punta Del Este
Pictured today at the wet fish stall on the quayside at Punta Del Este, Uruguay. OOFTUGs (Orders of the Unicycling Girrafe) awarded generously for amusing or insightful captions.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cromerc Rox

There I was, innocently listening to my iPod while on the long ride home, when up popped Child In Time from Deep Purple's album In Rock. Instantly - instantly - I was transported back to the very room in which I first heard this in 1975, as an impressionable thirteen-year-old, when played this by a knowing classmate.

Back in 2010, I scrubbed out of shuffle mode to hear the whole album, from the insane explosive bombast of Speed King to the final meltdown at the end of Hard Lovin' Man.

This was the sound of a band who, after three years footling around with an ill-matched line-up and cover versions of Neil Diamond songs, had finally got their act together, and, for me, invented heavy rock. Ritchie Blackmore's tremelo dives fused with the brutal assault of Jon Lord's Hammond (played very loudly through a Marshall stack) to create a sonic monolith - a sound often imitated, never mastered. The bands inspired by DP made the mistake of copying the guitar, thinking that it was overdriven and distorted, but it's not. Blackmore's guitar was, mostly, squeaky clean, as guitars usually were in the mid-60s. The distortion comes from a Hammond organ blasting through guitar amplifiers plainly not built for the purpose - and Roger Glover's earthshakingly, outrageously overdriven bass.

I realized that this record had been made in 1970 - forty years ago - yet it still sounded as fresh as a daisy. I opined on Facebook that Deep Purple In Rock was and is the finest rock album ever made. Naturally, one rose to challenge this claim, and it was my friend and occasional bandmate Mr. A. G. of King's Lynn, ace guitarist and prime mover behind Stone Pony - who asserted that far from the mighty Purple, the best rock album ever made was Strictly Personal by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, a record of whose existence I had been unaware. Mr A. G. emailed me a couple of tracks and ... well, they didn't do anything for me.

So, what is it that shapes our opinions in this most crucial theatre of human experience? Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?

Early experience appears to be the key. Mr A. G. recalls that he heard Strictly Personal at the age of ten. The record belonged to the older brother of a friend, and he heard it on his friend's radiogram. After that first exposure, he saved his pocket money furiously until he could buy his own copy. Perhaps, had he not been so exposed, he'd have fallen for some other combo. He recalls that 'he'd never heard anything like it' - and that was precisely my own feeling on first hearing Deep Purple in Rock.

Mr. A. G. became a professional guitarist. In due course I took up keyboards, specializing in ... rock organ. How these chance experiences of youth so shape our entire lives.

There Were Giants On The Earth In Those Days

Why did sauropod dinosaurs get so big? And not just big, but exceptionally big? Sauropod dinosaurs - the biggest ones, weighing more than 30 tonnes and measuring more than 30 metres long - were very much bigger than any other kind of land animal that has ever existed.

This topic - the subject of a symposium yesterday at ICVM9, might remind those of more cynical and jadied mien than I of the famous Monty Python sketch featuring Anne Elk (Miss) and her Theory of the Brontosaurus, which you´ll recall was thin at one end, thick in the middle, and thin at the other end. Things have moved on since then, and we know a great deal more than we did in Miss Elk´s time of the biology of large dinosaurs. The histology of the bones of sauropods is now known in such detail that we can get a good idea of how these creatures grew (very rapidly), and the realization of the close relationships between dinosaurs and birds has allowed us to get a refreshingly different view of dinosaurs as gigantic and birdlike, rather than gigantic mammals such as elephants, only made more ... well, gigantic.

Much of the work in this area has been done by Prof. M. S. of Bonn and his group, who made a strong showing here in Uruguay, and a very recent paper by Prof. M. S. and his colleagues (available free here) summarizes much of the proceedings. Basically, the researchers looked at all the physiological needs and organ systems of large dinosaurs (feeding, locomotion, respiration and so on), linking them all together in a network whose almost inevitable result was that large size - for some animals - is terrifically advantageous.

It all starts with the mouth. Anne Elk was quite right in her breakthrough realization that brontosauruses are thin at one end - for sauropod dinosaurs did indeed have very tiny heads, at the end of very long necks. The teeth were small and weak, so the dinosaurs didn´t do any chewing. Browse was nipped off in tiny pieces and swallowed immediately. Having a long neck is an advantage for an animal that wants to stay more or less in one place and crop from a wide area - but for this to happen, the head must be small and light, to minimize load. Certainly, the skulls and vertebrae of sauropods are full of air sacs, and are very much less dense than any bones we know from large mammals, say.

Why didn´t sauropods chew their food? There´s the mechanical constraint on small head size just mentioned, but there´s another disadvantage - chewing takes an immense amount of energy, and also time. Time that might be spent cramming yet more food into one´s gob. Some animals replace mastication in the mouth with a crop in which food is stored and macerated by stones, and one might imagine that this would be true of sauropods. Much to my surprise I learned that the evidence for gizzard stones in large sauropods is extremely scanty and ambiguous. Instead, sauropods swallowed enormous amounts of low-quality food that simply composted in their enormous bodies. The food wasn´t processed in the complex ways seen in ruminants or rabbits - it just went in the thin end, down to the thick middle, and took a long time to digest. As every gardener knows, the best and most efficient compost heaps are also the largest, so large gut volume combined with an active microflora and long retention times means an emphasis on size. Sauropods were gigantic walking compost heaps. (And I bet they farted like anything).

But wait, there´s more.

What happened to all that heat? Wouldn´t having an enormous gut, deep inside a large, voluminous creature, impose limits on size, or at least, shape? But small sauropods had much the same shape as larger ones, so there seems to have been no constraint on size imposed by internal heat generation. Why? The key is to think of sauropods not as large mammals but as large birds. Unlike mammals, which have a simple set of lungs that pulls air in and expels carbon dioxide, birds have a complex series of air sacs, accessory to the lungs, which penetrate many parts of the body, including the bones. At least some dinosaurs are known to have similar arrangements. The apposition of air sacs to the surfaces of the gut in sauropod dinosaurs would have allowed for the transfer of terrific amounts of excess heat, dumped through to the wet surfaces of air-sac membranes and converted into water vapour. Another constraint on size, lifted.

Something we don´t often factor in to the evolution of size is the mode of reproduction of the creatures concerned. It´s a well known fact that larger animals are rarer than smaller ones. As a rule, large animals do not shed their gametes into the desert air water column, but go in for internal fertilization and internal gestation, committing the animal to a great deal of investment, best apportioned into a small number of large young rather than a large number of small ones.

But is this universally true? It´s true enough for the large animals we know about nowadays, such as elephants and rhinos. Such large animals reproduce rarely, and are thus more vulnerable to extinction because of it. However, just because all the large animals we know about go about their business like that doesn´t mean that it´s axiomatic. Consider: the same can´t have been true for sauropods - because they laid eggs. Sauropods were hard to kill not just because they were big, but because replacing them was relatively easy  - just lay a pile more eggs and bury them, the work of a moment, rather than incurring the energetic and temporal costs and life-historical limitations of gestation. Another constraint lifted - sauropods could grow bigger in a given environment, because making more of them was easier; they fed full-time on low-quality browse which they took time to digest (another incentive to grow larger) without having to chew it (ditto) and because of their bird-like structure, they were good at dissipating excess heat (the same) and were relatively lightly constructed (the same again, with a bag of crisps, please).

That, my friends, is why sauropods grew so huge - not for any one reason, but an interconnected interplay of many things connected with every part of their life and structure, from their phylogenetic heritage to the kind of food they ate, the way they collected and digested it, how they respired and handled heat, and how they reproduced, all of which taken together put the accent on large size. Now, if elephants laid eggs...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Stop Following Me!

While on the bus between Montevideo and Punta Del Este yesterday, on my way to the 9th International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology, I ran into my old friend and colleague Professor Trellis of North Wales J. H. of Royston, who was attired in a T-shirt emblazoned with the following legend:

T-shirt modelled by Prof. J. H. of Royston, yesterday.

Like all memorable designs, this T-shirt says in a small space a great deal that´s profound. All by itself, it encapsulates everything I´ve been trying to express in draft after draft of the proposal for my next book, tentatively entitled The Myth of Progression: On The Tangled Bank of Darwin´s Imagination, currently doing the rounds of prospective publishers. The point is this: that species do not exist as staging posts between one ancestral species and another descendant species. Each species - or, rather, each individual - exists solely in the here and now, trying to gather resources and reproduce before it gets eaten, as part of an ecosystem - Darwin´s tangled bank - that changes, second by second, in innumerable subtle yet interconnected ways. The entire concept of ancestry and descent is a human construct, invented by us to make sense of the fossil record.

Now, I am perfectly aware that creationists, who seem to be my most assiduous admirers (to judge from the occasional ego-surfing sessions with which I indulge myself when I am feeling particularly lonely and unloved) will take sentences such as the foregoing and use it as an argument that even ´prominent evolutionary biologists´such as me don´t ´believe´ in evolution.

Pish, and, moreover, tosh. (Perhaps if I turn my charisma down a notch they´ll just drift away). To say that we cannot in principle spot ancestors retrospectively is not the same thing as saying that we do not have ancestors, and all the evidence is consistent with our sharing a common ancestor with chimpanzees that lived a few million years ago. There exist fossils whose morphology is consistent with the view that their living owners were more closely related to us than to chimps or other extant forms. The evidence for evolution is unarguable, and I refer any remaining doubters to the book The Greatest Show on Earth by Professor R. D. of Oxford. Both my regular readers will be aware that I am not Professor R. D.´s most uncritical fan, but that shouldn´t detract from the excellence of this book and many others from that distinguished author´s fecund pen (Climbing Mister Incredible, The Blonde Witchfinder, The Selfish Gnu, and many others, if memory serves).

Moreover and notwithstanding inasmuch as which, creationism fails because it works by cherry-picking the evidence it likes and disregarding inconvenient truths, in order to boster a pre-existing conclusion. That´s just not cricket scientific. Whereas one could legitimately accuse some methods that purport to be scientific to err into such misuse, these aren´t science either. Science has method - creationism, only advocacy.

But I digress.

Irrespective of one´s notions of ancestry and descent, the history of the study of human evolution exposes the canonical parade of simian erection as mythological. Each time a new species of hominin is found, it exposes just how misguided many of our cherished notions really are. When Neanderthal Man was found in 1856, it was dismissed as a pathological human - the discovery of Homo floresiensis, reported in 2004, was followed by very similar arguments. In both cases, the detractors were reacting against the discoveries because they were at such odds with what they thought ought to have happened, according to their preconceived notions. Of course, such notions do not come out of the air - they are conditioned by the evidence. The point is that the evidence is so weak and scanty that one could drive many hypotheses through the canon, each one equally plausible. It shouldn´t be forgotten that the creature that can see with equal clarity from either end is a blind horse.

My favourite critique of such evolutionary stories is not scientific, but literary, and was couched as a cod-literary essay - Kafka And His Precursors - by Jorge Luis Borges, an author whose home town was Buenos Aires, just across the River Plate from where I now sit. I have recently discussed this elsewhere in another context, but it could be raised just as legitimately here.

In his essay, Borges examines how Kafka´s works might have been influenced by a motley selection of sources from Zeno and Kierkegaard to Lord Dunsany, beforer delivering his disarming conlcusion (here translated by J. E. Irby).

‘If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist ... The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors.’ [my emphasis].

To be sure, each species has its precursors, as do writers, but to pick them in particular, after the fact, is a dangerous game that might say more about the prejudices of those doing the selection as it might about objective reality. Creationism is spectacularly at fault, here - but those of us who consider ourselves scientists should also be on guard against falling into the same error. We humans like to place ourselves at the head of a parade of ever more puissant erection, when we in fact have little idea about the progress of human evolution - or, at least, not enough to tell such a story in anything more than the most general way. Zeno and Kierkegaard and Lord Dunsany toiled each separately for their own ends in complete ignorance of the Kafka who was to come - just as individuals we´d now assign to Australopithecus or Paranthropus were too busy engaged in the business of eating and sex to prognosticate on any golden evolutionary future that might or might not come to pass.

When iTunes Cannot Help

Many years ago when the world was young I was at a ball in Cambridge, at which my date and I enjoyed a 1940s revival band called the Valentinos, who performed an hilarious number called 'Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs Murphy's Ovaltine?', the title of which must rank among those great Questions Of The Age alongside 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love?', 'Who Put The Bop in the Bop Shoowop Shoowop?' and 'Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear Every Time You Are Near?'

But I digress.

'Benzedrine' was, I assume, a cover version, but I simply couldn't trace the original. This was pre-interwebz, and certainly pre-iTunes. Inquiries at specialist record shops drew a blank. Nobody seemed to know. I was stuck.

Until, one day in 1992. In the summer of that year I was doing a sabbatical stint at the Royal Naval Air Service Armoured Car Division BBC World Service (Science Unit) in Bush House, in the centre of London. The cafeteria at lunch was crowded with broadcasters and journalists, and I remember being crammed in with my colleagues and telling them the story I've just told you, about my search for the original recording of 'Benzedrine'. Well, I might have known that the BBC would be the place where those with an encyclopaedic knowledge of obscure records might lurk. At our table a hand appeared through the crush of souls, bearing a scrawled note that read

Harry 'The Hipster' Gibson

That didn't get me any nearer to finding the record, but at least I had something to go on. And when iTunes eventually came to Cromer, I could download the track.

But iTunes can't solve everything. It cannot, for example, fix leaky oil wells or come up with an exit strategy for Afghanistan. My needs, however, are more humble. For there is a record - a much more recent record than 'Benzedrine' - that I seek, and on iTunes it cannot be found.

Earlier than the BBC incident, but after the Cambridge ball, I was listening to The Friday Rock Show on BBC Radio 2. The DJ, the late Tommy Vance (it was after 10 pm), would occasionally leaven the diet of heavy metal with more adventurous tunes, and one was so fantastic I went out and bought the record. I can't remember which track triggered it, but the year was 1990 and the album was Nomad by jazz-fusion guitarist Scott Henderson and his band Tribal Tech. I bought the album on a cassette (remember them?) Well, I listened to it, but cassettes were replaced by CDs, and then downloads, and the album made its way into the loft with lots of old pirate recordings, my elephant's-foot umbrella stand, my collection of tapes of kittens being impaled on red hot skewers and other stuff.

Well, roll on to the present, and I was given a load of jazz-fusion CDs by my friend and fellow commuter Mr N. C. of North Walsham, which featured some more recent Tribal Tech Albums, and other work by Scott Henderson. These are all fantastic and are now firmly lodged in my iPod. That was when I retrieved Nomad from the loft and am enjoying it a second time (it features in heavy rotation in the car alongside Rapture Of The Deep by Deep Purple and Ghost by my friend, singer-songwriter Dana Kerstein). I'd like to get Nomad into my iPod too, but it existeth not on iTunes. I cannot track down a CD anywhere, and wonder if it ever appeared in that format. Sure, I could lash up my aged and not often used cassette deck to a computer and do it the hard way, and it might come to that... but in the meantime, if anyone can get hold of a CD of Nomad by Tribal Tech, or knows whence one might be found, a middle-aged old git in Cromer wants to hear from you.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Flying Down to Rio. Nearly.

Another week, another conference. Having been in the past month to the International Palaeontological Congress in London, and Euro Evo Devo in Paris, I'm off - in a couple of hours - to the International  Congress of Vertebrate Morphology in Punta Del Este, Uruguay, whose pleasing logo is an armadillo.
roughton road I believe the weather will be chilly - South America is experiencing its coldest winter in ages, a matter that's exercising the climate-change denializers, so I shall pack a sweater. My journey will be somewhat convoluted: I shall start from my local halt, Roughton Road station (shown here at its rush-hour peak - it's normally a lot quieter than this) and travel via Norwich, London, Sao Paulo and Montivideo. It's one of those journeys for which a direct through train would have been nice, but simply to have no maintenance works or (reported) hold-ups on the London-Norwich stretch on a Sunday is something for which one should be grateful. And I can go one better than Phileas Fogg. He didn't have an iPad.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Ray, Remembered

You'd never know it to look at it, but the strip of land east of London and north of the Thames, out as far as Southend, is the home of British blues. Here in the Essex Delta, practically every night of the week, you can go to a session stiff with the sound of brooms being dusted and mojos worked. I lived in Ilford for five years and was part of that scene (it's one of the few things I really miss since I moved to Cromer), and central to that scene was organist, studio owner and all round A1 Nice Guy Ray "Chigwell Fats" Bartrip, who died a couple of days ago after a long fight with cancer.

I got to know Ray after a friend, a Mr. L. M. Of Basildon, introduced me to a weekly blues jam session at a pub in Brentwood, where Ray was the keyboard player in the house band. His instrument of choice was a T-series Hammond organ. The routine at jam sessions is that the house band will play a few numbers, then members of the audience who've signed up will be called up to play. Guitarists are two-a-penny, so they'd usually only get a couple of numbers each. Old-skool blues and rock keyboard players ... well, you can count them on the fingers of one thumb, and as I was almost always the only one there, apart from Ray, I'd often get to play most of the night, backing a revolving door of musicians from raw beginners to peerless professionals (my claim to fame- I once backed Brian Robertson, a true guitar hero, who'd been in Thin Lizzy in their 'Live and Dangerous' days). I'd be pitched into number after number, sometimes being told only the key it was in, and occasionally not even that. Live and dangerous indeed - I learned more about playing live music at those jam sessions than at any other time in my life.

Because I was often the only other player, I got to know Ray's Hammond quite well - and I got to know Ray, a seasoned player who'd been treading the boards since the beat-group days of the 1960s. I remember visiting his house, where keyboards were propped up in every corner, and his garage was a workshop with Hammond organs in every state of repair and dismemberment. I remember his gentle words of encouragement, his words of praise, and now that he's gone, that behind the fearsome riffs was one of the gentlest, kindest, sweetest souls you'd be lucky enough to meet.

I remember how, when he was otherwise committed - and as the years rolled by, often ill - I'd be invited to take his place in the house band, or in its touring version, led by ace guitarist Richard Dobney. Filling Ray's shoes was a responsibility - and an honour.

But one of my abiding memories was watching him, after a gig, squat-thrusting a Hammond into the back of a Volvo.

It seems a cliche to say it, but cliches are only cliches because they are true- but we won't see his like again.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

More On The iPad in Field Conditions

A while ago I wrote about the iPad and my first impressions on using this device. Since then it's been with me pretty much everywhere. I've used it on the train, at home, and at a couple of international conferences. On Sunday I'm off to another one, iPad in hand.

Now I've given the machine a thorough workout, it seems a good time to report on the good things - and the bad things (yes, the iPad isn't perfect, believe it or not) of this device.

Overall, it's become an indispensible part of my life. I think of it as the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) I always wanted, but with a specification my Psion Series 3 or HP iPaq Pocket PC of yore could never quite live up to. It does all the things those devices did, but much, much more easily - keeps my diary and contacts book, notes, a selection of documents, photos and a games compendium; plays music, allows me to surf and send emails, and so on. As I wrote before, it's not a laptop replacement, and not really a netbook replacement, either. It's different from these in that it is smaller, lighter, easier to use, has negligible boot-up time, and has a longer battery life. But the nature of the operating system means that for some things, a netbook or laptop are more effective.

At home, it scores as a diary management system. Mrs Crox and I both work full time, and what with having a family, diary management is an important part of our lives. Having the iPad on the coffee table at home means we can see who's doing what, where and with whom - easily and simply. Because the iPad is linked by MobileMe to the cloud and thence to the iMac in my Wearable OfficeTM , nothing ever gets lost - this means that one can keep adding things to one's diary and contacts list without necessarily having to sync the machine to the iMac each time you want to back things up.

Many people have wondered what the iPad is really for. This has never been a problem for me: as soon as I saw it advertised, I just knew that it would be the perfect companion to have at conferences. Now, most conferences these days will offer free wi-fi access, and tapping into a wi-fi network using the iPad's 'settings' menu is simplicity itself. From there, you can be on Facebook, you can Tweet, you can send and receive emails, you even tap into one's office system. Even without wi-fi, you can edit documents (in the Pages app) on the go. I did all these things with ease. Propping up an iPad in a lecture is much less obtrusive than opening up the clamshell of a laptop.

Where it really scores as a device for scientific meetings is the wonderful Papers app. You will of course remember the old days when you had boxes of dusty photocopies and reprints under your desk or cluttering up your attic. No more! Papers does away with all that. Next time someone emails you a reprint, you can store it in Papers. You can access PubMed, arXiv and many other online archives direct from the program and import pdfs or weblinks directly into one's personal library. You can hard-sync your Papers collection made on your iPad or iPhone directly with the collection on your Mac.

Papers is great for assembling a small collection of papers on a defined theme or for a specific purpose, such as writing your own paper or review article. For example. I've been thinking of writing a new edition of my book Before The Backbone, a specialist tome on the origin of vertebrates. A lot has happened since the book was published in 1996 - lots of fossils have been found that bear on the subject, and there has been an amazing amount of work done on genomes and so on. So I am assembling a collection in Papers of material I could draw on for the projected ... er ... project. While I was at Euro Evo Devo in Paris, I attended a lecture about a paper in press on gene expression in the amphioxus - obviously of interest to me. By force of habit I started to scribble down the reference on a piece of paper, but stopped: instead, I opened up Papers (no boot-up time, remember), keyed in the author's name into PubMed, found the paper and downloaded the pdf, all while the author was still speaking about it. This took less than a minute. Sure, you could do the same on your laptop, but it wouldn't be as quick. The iPad is much, much faster than any laptop I've seen, and has no boot-up time. Tap on a program's icon and you're there, with no hanging around. This speed is essential while following a lecture, and the iPad leaves the competition standing.

An unsung but essential part of the iPad's utility - mine, anyway - is the form-fitting case. I'm a heavy-handed, clumsy and rather scruffy individual who puts a great deal of physical demands on my gadgets. The naked iPad is beautful ... but it's as slippery as a fish, and I'd be very likely to drop it, scratch it and generally render it uninhabitable and unfit for human consumption. The case has proven itself extremely tough. It's been shoved into drawers and bags, generally yanked about, sat on by teh kittez, and has survived without any tears, rips or other signs of traumatic violation.

Last time I wrote that I couldn't blog on Blogger using the iPad - a deficiency I'd expected, as I'd had trouble doing this on the iPhone. That problem has been largely rectified as a result of improvements to Blogger. I wrote this post on the iPad and this one on my iPhone (though I added the picture later). However, it's only practical to write short blogs without pictures or conversation links. This is because cutting and pasting between applications, while possible, is very fiddly - and because it's very hard to navigate inside a text window. Once you've written text that's bigger than the window, it's impossible to scroll upwards to the text at the beginning. This is a problem of the operating system - I have encountered similar problems in other applications in which you enter text in a window which, on a computer, you'd be able to scroll about in.

This brings me to the iPad's main limitation, which is the virtual keyboard. I have learned to type at speed on this, but unless I am very careful, text jumps around the page. I'm not sure why this is, but it's probably something to do with the sensitivity of the keyboard and my heavy-handedness - I had the same problem with an old AST laptop I once had. But the main thing is that to reach all the characters, you have to toggle between three different keyboards - one with the letters, one containing numbers and some useful symbols, and a third with more symbols. This is what we tech heads call a Pain In The Bum, and, I think, exposes the iPad's heritage as a big iPod Touch - it's a keyboard for writing short emails or texts, not for composing anything at length. Sure, one can buy the iPod Dock or a remote keyboard to get round this, but given that you can buy the Pages wordprocessor as an app (and very good it is too) you'd have thought that the good folk at Apple would have done something about this.

My verdict? Sure, it has its limitations, but if viewed as a PDA rather than a fully specified computer, it's been a winner for me. The niggles about the keyboard and OS are more than outweighed by its lightness, utility, battery life,  the fact that it takes no time at all to boot up, and its blazing speed. It won't be for everyone, but for me, it's probably the best piece of equipment I've ever bought.

UPDATE: I've just bought an Apple Remote keyboard and paired it to the iPad by bluetooth. This turns the iPad from a hunt-and-peck texting device into a fully fledged writing machine. There is no reason, now, why one shouldn't be able to write as much text as one likes on an iPad without the virtual keyboard driving you barmy. Problem is, once the external keyboard is paired to the device, the virtual keyboard is disabled, unless you turn the bluetooth off again. Just a little niggle, but I had to find something irritating.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Skinsides Insides

On Thursday I am going to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital to have a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan, to see if they can get to the (spinal) root of my sciatica. I have never undergone this procedure before, but they tell me that they post me in a slot, insert a ten-shilling note and wind the handle, and if all goes well I'll come out more or less the same as I went in. I hope I won't be transformed instead into a watermelon or a cucumber, but if that were to happen I'd probably look something like these remarkable MRI images of fruit (thanks to Mr. A. R. of London for the link).

The More Things Change ...

Here at the Maison Des Girrafes we have a game called 'Waiting for Crox Minor'. Crox Minor, you see, takes an age and three quarters to get ready for anything, much of which time is occupied lacing up Converse trainers/ getting randomly distracted by cats (more on these later)/ daydreaming about broccoli/ combinations of the above.

The rest of us are already huffing and puffing and in the car, saying things like 'dynasties will rise and fall; mountains will be thrust up from the ocean floor and be ground away to silt [we do love our orogenies at the M des Gs], even the continents are starting to drift apart, and still Crox Minor is lacing up her trainers' and so on and so forth in that vein. Some things change, you see, but others are eternal, and even though the face of the Earth will be changed utterly were one to hang around long enough, it will still take an age and a half for Crox Minor to get her shoes on.

All of which brings me, if in a somewhat elliptical manner, to a minor spat in a far country of which one knows little, a high-profile blogging collective in which some fifteen of the eighty-odd bloggistas have left through feelings of moral outrage, when the proprietor of that network wished to host a paid-for blog by employees of a company that manufactures carbonated drinks. It is not for me to go into details: a wealth of information - a veritable cornucopia - can be yours simply by typing 'Pepsigate' into a search engine near you. However, I'd recommend this post as a one-stop sauce tzores source. This post is significant because the author, one Sir Bora de Zivkovic, is the author of one of the best-respected blogs on this particular network - and he himself has decided to leave. His parting shot is this magisterial post on the changing face of the blogging ecosystem.

Bora, like Rabbit in Winnie-The-Pooh, is a busy person. His blog is a never-ending carnival, link-fest, news aggregator and source of wisdom, and if that isn't enough, he (with some help from his friends and relations) has set up the enormo-phenomenon that is the ScienceOnline meatspace meetings, and the Open Laboratory best-of-science-blogging annuals. Unlike Rabbit, who is rather bossy, Bora is the nicest, kindest person you could ever meet, and, it seems, an inspiration to many. I first met him at SciFoo back in 2007, and the following year had the great pleasure of welcoming him to the Maison Des Girrafes, where he was a hit with all the Croxii, especially Heidi, who flirted with him something rotten.

Now, this is not a wake, and I'm sure the never-ending circus that is Bora's blog will roll on to even greater success somewhere else. Taking the long view, all things must pass - even dynasties, mountains and continents - and it could be that the blogging collective to which I refer has passed the noontide of its success, and will be succeeded by other things, as Bora describes eloquently in his post. Such seems to be the natural order of things.

Blogging collectives, are, possibly, inherently unstable entities, given the outspoken and often wayward natures of the participants. The aforementioned enterprise hosts (or did until recently) many bloggers whose work and personalities I like a great deal - and many others, it is fair to say, whose work and personalities I like rather less. That's probably as it should be - but it implies that such entities are not built to last. John Wilkins, the wry ol' silverback of the science blogosphere, likens such an enterprise to herding cats.

Cats, not being herded, recently.
At first I imagined he was talking about me and my editorial colleagues, or the members of my synagogue, collectives of intelligent, articulate and opinionated people who all like to talk at once, but the metaphor works just as well for science bloggers. The blogging platforms may change, and change again. But the bloggers, bless 'em, will stay the same. At least until they get a dog.
Cat and Dog
Cat, successfully herded by Dog. Yesterday.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Apple Store, Apple Store

I had to post this - it's from Crox Minor, currently saving up for an iPod Touch, and obsessed with the soundtrack of Fiddler On The Roof. Hum the following to the tune of 'Matchmaker, Matchmaker'.

Apple Store, Apple Store, Get me a Mac
Find me an iPhone, send me a pack
Of beautiful gadgets for I long to be
The envy of all I see.

Apple Store, Apple Store, an 8-gig will do
Shiny and black, an iPod so new
So bring me it now because I am a nerd
And happy cries will be heard.

For Papa, see that it's cheap
For Mama, see that it's quiet
With it all day long I will sit on my arse
So I may have to go on a diet.

Apple Store, Apple Store, get me a Mac
Find me an iPhone, send me a pack
Of wondrous widgets so shiny and cool
The thought of them makes me drool!

Bring On The Starving Lions

On Saturday night I had the grave misfortune to have watched most of a nocturnal emission entitled 101 Ways To Leave A Game Show in which the idiot contestants were asked idiot questions and the one who answered incorrectly had to endure some hideous fate usually involving being catapulted into water from a great height. This is the sort of low-grade chav TV fodder with which Saturday evening schedules are customarily disfigured (the other Croxii lap up this tripe) but the wonder is that it was put on by the BBC, which is forever being castigated for its profligacy with the license-fee payers' money (the production costs for this show must have cost £££).

Let's push this thing a bit further. I think this format would turn from unwatchable to unmissable if contestants who erred would suffer significant risk of death, by increasingly bizarre and exotic ways as the show progressed. The first contestants to leave might do so by hanging, with subsequent victims being dispatched by firing squad, being pulled to bits by maddened horses, squished by steamrollers, eaten alive by rabid mutant hagfishes, nibbled to death by Beelzebun Demon Bunny of DOOM and so on.
Beelzebun Demon Bunny of DOOM. Quite some time ago.

The Romans had the right idea when they threw atheists to the lions. As Tom Lehrer said in the context of bullfighting, 'the crowd held its breath/ hoping that death/ would brighten an otherwise dull afternoon'. And why not? Chav entertainments of an earlier age included bear-baiting and cock fighting, and given that no self-respecting chav is seen out these days without an attack dog as a fashion accessory, dog-fighting, too. If this is the audience the BBC is trying to cultivate, it should at least be honest about it. It would be better value for money, too. All you'd need is a pub car park and a couple of camcorders. What's not to like?

Building Bodies, By Instalments

Perhaps the most interesting session at Euro Evo Devo was, for me, the one on the origin of segmentation - that is, the propensity for the body of an organism to be divided up into a series of more or less repeating parts. When William Bateson was studying the anatomy and development of acorn worms in the mid-1880s, he supposed that segmentation originated as a kind of oscillation, as of a train of waves. I wish I could pin down, now, precisely where he said this, but the point was made amply in his 1894 polemic book Materials for the Study of Variation, in which he classed segmentation as the basis for a kind of variation in repetitive parts he termed 'meristic'. Looking at the tree of life as it is conventionally viewed today, jut three among the thirty-something recorded phyla are regarded as segmented - annelid worms, arthropods and chordates. Now, in the Old Days, when Cromercrox was taught zoology, it was thought that arthropods evolved from an annelid-like ancestor, in which case the segmentation seen in earthworm and earwig were homologous - that is, evolutionarily related.

That all changed following a meeting I had in 1996 in the Wyndham Hotel near Los Angeles International Airport, with Professor James A. Lake of UCLA, who proposed a new molecular-based phylogeny of metazoa in which annelids and arthropods were fundamentally separated. Arthropods would be united with the determinedly unsentimental unsegmental nematodes and some other stuff in the Ecdysozoa, a clade of 'molting animals'. Lake and colleagues had already published (in Science) a molecular phylogeny linking annelids with molluscs and brachiopods into a clade called the Lophotrochozoa - the revelation of the Ecdysozoa paper was that the arthropods and the annelids were fundamentally separate. (The chordates, of course, were and still do belong to a quite separate group, the deuterostomes). At first, many people, including me, thought that the whole idea was loopy. But hey, what do I know? I am a mere hack. The molecules say different; the Ecdysozoa was published in my esteemed organ, and the Deuterostome/Ecdysozoa/Lophotrochozoa split of the animal kingdom has been borne out by much subsequent work.

What this means for segmentation is this: that each major animal group has one phylum within it that is habitually segmented. In the Lophotrochozoa, it is the annelids, standing amid a squishy morass of unsegmented molluscs and brachiopods. In the Ecdysozoa, it is the arthropods, rising above the unsegmented nematodes and a load of other stuff you've probably never heard of, and even if you did, you'd probably want to forget about it immediately afterwards. And among the Deuterostomes, it is the chordates - including we vertebrates - with our mesoderm divided into somites, each with its own vertebra, innervation and muscle block. If you don't believe me, just ask a salmon steak.

Now, this poses a nice conundrum - which my father says is different from two elephants sitting on a bagel, who have a bunundrum - and this conundrum is this: did the habit of segmentation originate in each phylum independently, in which case the common ancestor of all these animals was unsegmented, or was it a more general feature of animals that most creatures have lost, all except for the annelids, arthropods and chordates? This, I discovered, is a matter still ripe for debate, and what made the symposium at Euro Evo Devo so exciting.

To posit an independent origin for all three instances of segmentation would be by far the easiest option, given that the three phyla concerned are widely sundered by evolution, and the alternative is to suppose a wholesale loss of segmentation in virtually every other kind of animal. The ugly fact that spoils this easy idea, though, is that in all three cases, the process of segmentation utilizes pretty much the same network of genes - cognates of genes isolated long ago in the fruit fly and bearing names such as engrailed and wingless. These days it is fashionable to invoke the concept of deep homology in which structures in widely separated animal groups, although they look very different from each other and might have indeed appeared independently, are based for their engenderment on a similar cassette or module of interacting genes. This idea allows the invocation of segmentation in each of the three phyla to appear separate, even though it is based on fundamentally the same genetic substructure.

This, however, raises the question of why segmentation has not happened in all the other phyla, given that they all must share the same module or cassette of genes, and, to follow this line of thinking, why the ancestor of all three major animal groups - which would have also shared this cassette or modeule of genes - might not also have been segmented.

Truly, a question that would cross a rabbi's eyes, noch?

The solution, it seems, is to loosen what we think of as segmentation. For it is not the case that all animals other than annelids, arthropods and chordates are utterly without any sign of segmentation.  True, their bodies might not  be so rigidly divided into compartments in accordance with our usual requirements for segmentation - but they do, very often, show a repetition of parts along the body axis. Primitive molluscs, such as chitons and some other forms, show repetitive arrangements of shells, gills and so on, even though they are not usually thought of as segmented. Non-chordate deuterostomes such as acorn-worms show repeated gill slits. Even humble flatworms show repeated arrangements of gonads, gut diverticulae and so on. In the widest sense, therefore, there is a tendency for creatures to divide their bodies, to a greater or lesser extent, into a series of repeated structures, forming a continuum from the completely unsegmented to the fully segmented.

Perhaps Bateson had it right all along, if only figuratively. Perhaps there is a tendency within animal bodies to create distinct domains by means of wavelike morphogenetic gradients, whose results are not distinguished by a simple division into those animals that are segmented against those that are not - but simply by those animals in which the wave crests of such oscillators are higher or lower, more distinct or less. The common ancestor of Ecdysozoa, Lophotrochozoa and Deterostomes might not have been strictly segmented, or strictly unsegmented - it is probably impossible to know - but it would have had an oscillatory system of body partitioning that would have fallen out naturally from the interaction of cassettes or modules of genes. Like many revelations in science, it is not the data that change - but the way you look at them in the light of new evidence.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Two Cheers for Sisyphus

I'm working harder than a very hard thing, trying to clear my desk before I jet off to Uruguay on the 25th for the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology, after which I shall be on holiday (which I badly need - by then I shall be down to my last elbows). I have to get another issue of Mallorn (the Journal of the Tolkien Society) pretty much laid out before I go. I should also like to finish my end-of-year accounts. I am painfully aware that I owe you some blogs from Euro Evo Devo. And there's some other stuff I'd like to write about if time allows.

I have managed, though, to put a big self-satisfied-looking tick against one task on my list. Many years ago (or so it seems) the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza asked me to write something for their Scholars' Forum. I was very honoured to have been asked, as other invitees include the cream of modern Tolkien scholarship, and it does a fellow good to be counted among such mighty company.

Well, eventually, and after much prevaricating around the bush, I delivered. It's an essay about the sources that might have inspired Tolkien in the creation of the Ents, his distinctive Shepherds of the Trees - together with a cautionary note on such source-spotting fishing expeditions. Anyway, it's up now. I hope you like it.

As for everything else, here is something else for you to look at, while you are waiting.

How Not To Get Your Paper Published, No. 43

Format your manuscript in a way that makes it entirely obvious that you've never read the journal before, let alone its carefully crafted guidance notes for intending authors.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

We Are Not Men, We Are Euro Evo Devo

I'm just back from the third biennial meeting of the European Evo Devo society, which was held at the Université Paris 7, parts of which were seemingly designed by Le Corbusier when he was in his SF Dystopian Municipal Car Parks phase. The auditoria were concrete bunkers with no aircon, so anybody who'd borne more than four lectures in a row (the weather was scorchio) came out looking like a decaying lamprey. The meeting for me was made more difficult by my continued sciatica and a persistent head cold which meant that at night I never got more than two or three hours sleep together without waking up amid the sensation of drowning in my own mucus.

But I digress.

What, I hear you cry, is 'Evo Devo'? The term is short for 'Evolutionary Developmental Biology' and it's a science that's waited, ooh, since the early nineteenth century to come into it own.

People of cleverness (the term 'scientist' hadn't been invented) have long wondered about the relationship between development - the course an individual organism takes between egg and embryo and adult - and the grander over-arching evolutionary history of the species to which it belongs. The people who really went to town with this idea were the 'Nature Philosophers', a group of romantics mainly from Germany, and at the turn of the nineteenth century, largely associated with that great polymath Goethe. Now, Goethe's literary effusions are such that he has been referred to as 'The German Shakespeare' but the comparison is hardly fair - after all, the Bard didn't invent the idea of morphology; come up with a theory of colour which, in the importance attached to the observer, presages quantum mechanics, if only poetically; and lay the groundwork for the evo-devo we see today.

The Nature Philosophers felt that the course an embryo follows represents the history of the group to which it belonged, a a kind of record whereby that species would engage in its own striving towards perfection. Yes, it's a lot of waffle, but if the Nature Philosophers had their heads in the clouds (nuages still inhabited by that Goethean offshoot, Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophists), they had their feet firmly planted in mid air on the ground. Goethe had an immense on Haeckel, and through him, early embryologists such as Wilhelm Roux and from him, a line of experimental embryology that extends right up to the present day.

Despite the noöspheric phooey, the Nature Philosophers were keen observers, and their intellectual descendants pioneered many techniques in dissection, staining and microscopy - all good, solid, investigative stuff. The Nature Philosophers looked at the big questions of the study of form, and tried to devise experiments to answer them.

The impact of Darwinism on this movement was, for a long time, little more than that of a damp lettuce leaf on the hide of a charging rhino. All evolutionary biologists could do was make rather vague and vacuous statements about how various embryological (and thus evolutionary) transformations might or might not have been influenced by selection. This vagueness so infuriated two young biologists, William Bateson and Thomas Hunt Morgan, to such a pitch that they threw over Darwinism in favour of designing experiments to get at the sources of the genetic variation that Darwin could not address. It was Bateson who coined the term 'genetics'. Morgan, on the other hand, with his students, pioneered the use of the fruit fly as a model organism and, through a series of careful experiments, discovered that the units of heredity had physical form, as loci that existed on chromosomes. Bateson went to his grave a pronounced anti-Darwinist; Morgan was only dragged into Darwinism by his students, notably Theodosius Dobzhansky, who managed to fuse the variation he saw in the lab with that he knew as a field naturalist, and has as good a claim as any as being a founder of the 'neo-Darwinian synthesis' we know today.

From the embryologists, rooted in Goethean nature philosophy, we have a comprehensive knowledge of the embryologies of many organisms and how these relate to evolution.

From the geneticists, we got - eventually - techniques to sequence whole genomes and manipulate genes to study the effects of their loss.

The two together have given us evo-devo - a science that uses new techniques of genetics and genomics to answer age-old questions of shape and form in organisms.

Well, that's enough for now, cos I is crackered... I might write more about this in a day or two when I feel better.

The only photo I took in Paris, by way of digressive amusement, was this.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Busy Doing Nothing

Time was when I'd fill each minute with sixty seconds' distance run, but increasing age and infirmity have forced me to reconsider the virtues of doing nothing. This weekend past has been an ideal opportunity to put that into practice. Still sweltering from a week in London at the International Palaeontological Congress, a couple of whose many highlights I have already discussed, and before I jet train off to Paris tomorrow to the European Evolutionary Developmental Biology Meeting, I felt an urgent need to take a good long look at this...
This. Yesterday. About tea time.

... which both my regular readers will instantly recognize as Cromer East Beach, the Heart of Cromercroxness on Earth. So it was that on Saturday evening at about 4 o'clock, Mrs Crox had the altogether splendid idea of packing a picnic and heading down to the Maison Des Girrafes Marine Biology Field Station beach hut. And so we went, with our picnic basket, containing sandwiches, fresh local strawberries and the last drop of Export Strength Old Scrotum bottled ale that Mr F. N. of London had left in our fridge after Cromer Is So Bracing 2010, and enjoyed the evening.

For those who don't know, the Maison Des Girrafes Marine Biology Field Station beach hut is here...
... it's the fourth one in from the right of the picture. Yes, that one. The blue one, with the doors open.

The younger Croxii gambolled in the surf. Heidi got to play with her good friend Oscar, who just happened to be passing.
Oscar is the Dog on the Left, rampant.

And we all appreciated the fact that even on a fine Saturday evening in summer, Cromer East Beach is practically deserted, in either ...

... direction ...


and the noisiest thing you'll hear is this.
A sea anemone. Shhhh.

Now, I have earlier opined on the efforts of travel companies to disparage Cromer to part fools from their money and have them fly off to beaches elsewhere, notwithstanding inasmuch as which the general obamarama brouhaha and inconvenience of airports, strikes, terrorist outrages, crowds and truly gargantuan expense that such reckless courses of action necessarily engender. Now, were there people who'd endure such torment to get to a beautiful, deserted beach on the other side of the world when one has beautiful deserted beaches right here, I salute them. They leave so much more for the rest of us to enjoy, almost free. Yes, one can assuredly get more reliable weather elsewhere, but that makes the days we do have all the more precious.

And then there's the Englishness of it all, dammit. On Sunday, the Friends of Crox Minima's Primary School somehow acquired the grounds of a fine Georgian house overlooking a cricket ground and put on a Dads-vs-Dads cricket match, and so it was that I was forced to tolerate sitting beneath an oak tree being fed scones with strawberries and cream and libated with cups of tea and glasses of Pimms, and compelled to listen, whether I wanted to or not, to the proverbial thwack of girrafe on unicycle leather on willow, for the kind of long, seemingly endless, effortlessly golden afternoon that only England can manage. It's a tough life.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Three Ways to Split a Fish

Here's another squirt from the Third International Palaeontological Congress in London, where yesterday I attended a workshop on early vertebrates - the early evolution of backboned animals such as ourselves. Being as I am, particularly at the moment, a martyr to bipedality, this is something with which I can sympathise.

But I digress.

At the proper scale, all vertebrates are fishes, and what a varied bunch they are. There are the jawless fishes or Agnetha Agnatha - lampreys and hagfishes, the last remnants of a very varied and ancient assemblage of armoured fishes or ostracoderms, all of which are extinct. Then there are the Chondrichthyes - sharks and rays. And finally there are the Osteichthyes - the bony fishes, by far the most successful group of vertebrates, which happen to include as an offshoot all the land vertebrates, a small and bizarre group of fishes specialized for living in water of negative depth.
Cute Bunneh.
A bony fish specialized for living in water of negative depth. Recently.

There are, however, two other major groups of fishes that are now completely extinct, but in whose understanding might allow the unlocking of many enigmas - many, indeed, conundramatic riddles. These are the Acanthodians, or 'spiny sharks', mainly small, scaly, spiny fishes whose internal skeletons are rarely preserved, but are known mainly from smears of scales and spiny bits that look like the parts of a fish that the cat would have thrown up as indigestible. Acanthodians are known from the Silurian right up to the end of the Permian. Acanthodes, one of the best known acanthodians, is a Permian form, one of the last of its kind, and not necessarily representative of the group's much earlier heyday. The wider relationships of acanthodians has been a matter of controversy, with opinion shifting between allegiances with sharks or bony fishes.

Then there are the Placoderms, another large and very diverse group that emerged in the Silurian but disappeared at the end of the Devonian. These were often heavily armoured, with robust head- and trunk armour, and look superficially like some of the various jawless ostracoderms, for all that they have jaws. But the pattern and styling of the armour of placoderms is so unique that it has been hard to relate them to either bony fishes or sharks. Some placoderms were tiddlers. Others were, as we scientists say, mean meat-eatin' muthas.

Underlying all this is the vast morphological gulf that separates jawless vertebrates from the various kinds with jaws, or Gnathostomes. It's not just a question of the evolution of jaws (not a trivial restructuring in any case). The evolution of jaws was accompanied by wholesale changes in many other parts of the anatomy, from the wiring of the brain to the appearance of paired limbs. What one should like to do is get some idea of how the various features that make up a gnathostome were acquired, and which order. Without that, we are left with a vast evolutionary jump, from Agnetha to Frida Agnathans to Gnathostomes, without any further clue as to evolution's likely course. Did paired fins evolve before jaws? Did jaws evolve all at once, or by a series of various modifications? In order to help us answer such questions it would help if we had transitional forms, way stations between the jawless and jawed state. It turns out, however, that these forms have been with us all the
time, only we'd failed to recognise them. They are -- ba boom, tish -- the acanthodians and the placoderms.

Most people have become accustomed to thinking of placoderms and acanthodians as 'natural' groups. This is why there has been so much debate about whether acanthodians are closer to sharks or bony fishes. The question is unanswerable, unless one makes an intellectual leap and challenges the assumption that acanthodians are all one, natural group, like - say - sharks, or bananas. However, there is an alternative, in which acanthodians are less a natural group than a grade of evolution in which some acanthodians are closer to sharks, others are closer to bony fishes, and still others are offshoots from a time when these two lineages were as yet indistinct. This revelation has come about thanks to recent work on new and extremely rare material of acanthodian braincases. This insight is crucial as for the first time we can get an idea of what the latest common ancestor of sharks and bony fishes looked like - and it would have looked very much like an acanthodian.

But what of placoderms? Once one breaks this group up into its many constituent parts, the group starts to arrange itself as a series of grades between agnathans and gnathostomes. Of the two major placoderm groups, for example, the antiarchs look much more primitive and ostracoderm-like, whereas the arthrodires seem much more gnathostome-like.

This is, however, only the beginning of what promises to be an exciting if somewhat tricky path of research. For once one breaks up the monophyly (natural-group-ness) of acanthodians and placoderms, many things become possible - and many new problems surface. Crucially, placoderms of any kind look very different from acanthodians, so which group of placoderm is most closely related to which group of acanthodian? Did placoderms evolve into acanthodians? At present this seems as likely as girrafes evolving from unicycles. This is a circle whose squaring will come in the next few years of research into an old problem dramatically renewed, simply by breaking down a couple of cherished assumptions.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

More News About Olds

Just a quick squirt, this, from the Third International Palaeonological Congress I'm currently attending in London, which notwithstanding inasmuch as which is reputed to be the biggest meeting of palaeontologists in the world, ever - the noosphere round South Kensingtion is in imminent danger of going critical and disappearing in a welter of brachiopods. Being as it's so huge, with many parallel sessions, I have managed to attend only a fraction of the events, gatherings, panels, discussions and symposia.

It is a truism, perhaps, to say that you can't have a fossil unless you can have a rock to put it in, so one symposium I was keen not to miss was the Lyell Symposium, whose subject was working out how best to appreciate the tally of past diversity, given that the record of the rocks itself is not constant. Sedimentary rocks are forming all the time, but they are constantly being worn away. Rocks that were once formed on the ocean floor are thrust up as mountains which, by virtue of their high estate, experience greater weathering. But even those rocks that lie peacefully on the seafloor will, eventually, be subducted beneath continental margins. As we say at the Maison Des Girrafes, dynasties will rise and fall, mountains will be thrust from the ocean floor and ground away to dust, and even continents will be seen to drift measurably apart, all in the time we're waiting for Crox Minor to tie her shoelaces. No strangers are we to the grand cycles of Earth History.

Interpreting, therefore, the known ranges of fossil organisms is fraught with complexity, if what you are doing is using those data to make bald statements about the history of life. The baseline for such grand macroevolutionary vistas was and is the database on marine invertebrates compiled by the late Jack Sepkoski and now maintained by Shanan Peters of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Peters was among the first to realize that the record of the rocks might have a substantial modulating effect on apparent signals of changing diversity. In other words, many of the events that raw biodiversity data seemed to describe would be blurred or even disappear entirely once that biodiversity had been corrected for the availability of rocks in which fossils might be preserved. Many of the supposed crises in Earth history - the mass extinctions, the originations - were in fact artefacts caused by the fact that the record of the rocks themselves, as well as the fossils they contained, is inconstant.

Things have moved on a little since then, and Peters and many others have been looking at the possibility that some of these factors are in fact connected. Is there a relationship between the amount of sedimentary rock deposited and the activities of life? Perhaps the abundance of life is not just correlated with available sediment, but has a causal relationship. In one sense this must be true. The chalk that makes up the famous White Cliffs of Dover, for example, is almost entirely biogenic. And when you start to plug in the effects of life into the Earth System, you see connections everywhere. The presence of life substantially affects the hydrological cycle, the rate at which rocks are weathered, the constitution of the atmosphere - and, one even make so bold - the wetness of rocks in subduction zones and thus the course of plate tectonics. Life, the fluid earth, and the solid earth, are all connected. From this it seems obvious that the record of life on earth cannot be read independently from the record of the rocks themselves. But teasing apart causes from effects is a project that imposes new challenges, creating exciting new statistical methodologies, and showing the history of the Earth and the life upon it are intimately, indissolubly linked.

You might think palaeontology is just a lot of old bones and shells.

We, however, know that fossils are the signs of a planet shaped by that remarkable nonequilibrium phenomenon we call 'life'.