The Liebster Award and Other Things Interesting

It's amazing how busy a summer can be for an unemployed college student. I haven't done half of what I intended when the spring semester ended, but I can't say my time has been wasted. As is my usual this time of year, I have spent a majority of the past two months playing babysitter for my sister. For the uninformed, four kids make reading difficult, especially when the book in question has dinosaur pictures in it. Luckily, I have managed to get some learning done and feel that I'm ready to springboard into some of the more brutal material.

Since I have more fun stuff to talk about, I won't spend much time on details about my reading, but I'll hit the main points. Up first, I finally managed to find the time to get through Dinosaurs Under the Big Sky by Jack Horner( My nephew and youngest niece really enjoyed sitting in my lap and asking me questions about all of the pictures. This effectively caused me to give up on my reading while at their house, but I digress. While I enjoyed most of this book, I found the sections detailing fossils found in the various formations to be systematic and tedious. The section I found to be most informative was the final appendix that detailed skeletal structures and commonly used directional references. This was definitely helpful for the two papers I read this week.

Due to my growing interest in pachycephalosaurs, I decided to check out the latest work from Dr. Joseph Peterson and company regarding potential head-butting behavior( Some Googling was required but I managed to understand most of the material when I was finished. I didn't draw any conclusions from the paper, but I did appreciate the amount of time put into researching the nature and location of the dome lesions. Without more of the skeleton though, everything just seems like a guess. If I got nothing else from this paper, at least my reading of it reminded me of a classic commercial and led to this Twitter hypothesis from Dr. Peterson:

For the sake of being thorough, here's the ad, courtesy of the good people at YouTube:

The other paper I chugged through was the new publication regarding the most recently named centrosaurine, Nasutoceratops titusi, courtesy Dr. Scott Sampson and a plethora of other folks, including Dr. Andrew Farke( What I gained from the paper, other than a few (re: a lot of) new words, is that Nasutoceratops is the first piece in a much bigger puzzle. I appreciate that it represents some level of confirmation for the idea of provincial dinosaur behavior during the late Campanian, but until more information comes to light, I shall remain guarded. Despite my caution, I anxiously await future discoveries from the region that can provide more insight on the subject.

I think that the most important thing about the two papers I read is that I had no problem accessing them. Praise The Duke for open access! (Yes, I mean John Wayne. Has a nice ring to it.) Admittedly, as a student currently enrolled at MSU-Bozeman, I have access to most of the popular life science publications through the library reserve, but tapping that well is laboriously inconvenient and most people don't have that luxury. If science is meant to better society, than society should be able to read what science has to say!

I know that the title of this post leads off with something called a Liebster Award, but I was compelled to put that off until the end. I don't feel like explaining exactly what it is, but since Dr. Penny Higgins, vertebrate paleontologist/geochemist/Western martial artist/mom/chicken farmer, nominated me for it, I'll let her post explain the details: (She blogs a lot of interesting stuff. I strongly suggest keeping tabs.)

Now that we're all caught up, I'll start by pointing out that I won't be nominating others for this award, as the blogs I read tend to have a large following as it is, and to be honest, I don't feel like picking any. The other two parts, eleven factoids and answering the questions, sound like fun, so I'll play.

11 Interesting Factoids About Me as Determined by Me
  1. My sense of smell is limited due to a sinus infection I had in 2001.
  2. I've all but stopped reading fiction because I need to catch up on a lot of science.
  3. I don't like the taste of coffee, but I drink it anyway.
  4. I have been a Chicago Cubs fan for so long that I don't remember why.
  5. I have nine plants in my apartment, but I only bought four of them.
  6. My roommate is a hedgehog named Spock Leonard Nimoy Prime.
  7. I still own a VCR, just in case.
  8. I am a mediocre whistler.
  9. The Old Spice Guy, Isaiah Mustafa, follows me on Twitter.
  10. Nearly half of my freezer space is occupied by Girl Scout cookies to be rationed out over the next year.
  11. I absolutely refuse to ever wear shorts or sandals.
11 Questions as Posed by the Nominating Party and Answered by Me
  1. Got any hobbies? What do you do when you have a day to play around?--I read science books and watch movies. I really am that interesting.
  2. How about pets? Anything more exotic than dogs or cats?--As stated above, I have a hedgehog.
  3. Sports: Watch or participate? Or neither? I follow hockey, football, and basketball, but I love baseball. Would play if I could.
  4. Original Star Wars (Episodes 4-6) or new Star Wars (Episodes 1-3)?--The ONLY Star Wars (4-6)
  5. What part of the world would you most like to visit?--I've seen enough of it. Any future travels are bonus.
  6. Do you think there is life in other parts of the universe?--Given the size of the universe, the odds seem pretty good, but I don't expect to see any of it.
  7. What’s your favorite season?--I'll go with summer because frostbite will jade a person.
  8. If you had the chance, would you go back to school to study something new? What?--Vertebrate Paleontology, because construction engineering is a joke.
  9. What’s the strangest thing you have sitting out in your dining room?--Nintendo Entertainment System with Legend of Zelda and Kirby's Adventure.
  10. What’s your favorite type of music?--Older country.
  11. If you could go back in time, when and where would you visit?--I would take a camcorder back to Maastrichtian Wyoming and get conclusive evidence regarding T. rex feeding habits and the purpose behind the domes of pachycephalosaurs so people would stop asking about it.
I hope this brief insight into my last month of randomness has been pleasurable and I plan to cobble together some more thoughts in the near future. The Dino Shindig in Ekalaka is coming up, featuring some cool paleontologists and a field expedition day, so I'm sure I'll come up with something for that(Details here: Thanks to Dr. Higgins for the award nomination and helping spread my admittedly bizarre signal and thanks to everyone that took the time to read this whole thing. You all are awesome and it has been and will continue to be my genuine pleasure. Here's a song to close this thing out:

Notes: I don't know what all I'll be reading or blogging about over the next couple of months due to my unpredictable schedule, but I will most definitely find it interesting. As per usual, I appreciate feedback and/or suggestions in the comments or via Twitter.

Twitter handles: Dr. Joseph Peterson - @JPTaphonomy, Dr. Scott Sampson - @DrScottSampson, Dr. Andrew Farke - @AndyFarke, Dr. Penny Higgins - @paleololigo, Old Spice Guy - @isaiahmustafa

Dr. Derek Main: Farewell to a Man I Wish I'd Known

I had never heard of Derek Main before news broke Wednesday of his passing the day before. (There are quite a few paleo folks that I'm still not familiar with, so this doesn't surprise me.) Despite this, I have felt a profound sense of sorrow and regret these past few days, presumably because I will never have the opportunity to meet him. I don't generally get emotional about death, but the reactions I've seen tell me that he was a wonderful person and a true credit to his field.

Photo courtesy of the Arlington Archosaur Site Facebook page

Despite my previous unfamiliarity, I have learned that Dr. Main was the director of the Arlington Archosaur Site in northern Texas( and taught courses at University of Texas-Arlington. He was a guest speaker at TEDxUTA(bio here: in April and had just received his Ph.D. last month. More specifics about Dr. Main can be found at UTA's Shorthorn website( and a brief obituary is available from Donnelly's Colonial Funeral Home( There is also a news report from ABC's WFAA affiliate in Dallas that I've included below.

To me, Dr. Derek Main serves as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. I only recently began to truly delve into paleontology and biology, and as I push toward 30, I tend to wonder how seriously I can pursue these avenues as more than a hobby. The fact that Dr. Main didn't receive his Ph.D. until the age of 41 reminds me that I still have time for higher education. It is with sad irony that he also reminds me that no one really knows how much time we have to do anything.

Given the circumstances, I can honestly say that I wish I hadn't heard of Derek Main. He should still be down in Texas, living the life of a paleontologist and advancing the knowledge of his students and the public. My first exposure to his name should have come through a great discovery or a chance meeting later in our lives. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and those who cared about him are left with nothing but happy memories and a sad truth. Life is a wonderful but cruel thing, and time catches us all eventually. Society's most common wish is for the deceased to rest in peace, but in this case, I like to think that Dr. Main is now walking with the dinosaurs.

(Since I usually include a song somewhere, I felt that a sad song with a dinosaur in the title would be appropriate.)

Note: The Arlington Archosaur Site is currently accepting donations in tribute to Dr. Main. Some have suggested the donations to be in the amount of $41, one dollar for each year of his life, but any denomination is welcome. Head over to the AAS website( to contribute if you can.

Waking the Bats in My Belfry

I'll start by apologizing for the lack of new content over the past several weeks. With baseball season in full swing and family events taking over my life, I've been short on time to put order to my thoughts. With the way ideas fly around in my head, such a task can be arduous for me. I think my greatest hurdle to more consistent posting is my preference for writing each entry without interruption. Now that I've made excuses, I think the time has come for me to sculpt my next compositional masterpiece.

While I have a variety of ideas for future posts, I thought I should take some time to write a bit of a "potpourri" entry as a way to generate some momentum and ease back into blogging. I openly admit that this style is inherently flawed due to inconsistent flow and a seemingly random nature, but I will do my best to minimize the damage. (I should be okay, since my writing style often provides a sense of randomness to individual concepts. Today is just a chance to reverse the trend.)

I suppose I should start by summarizing what I've been up to lately. Aside from my gratuitous baseball watching, I've actually done a fair amount of reading. I finished Written in Stone by Brian Switek a while ago and recently read through Your Inner Fish by Dr. Neil Shubin. (I'll be writing an in-depth review of each book once I get back in a groove. I'm also waiting to get my copy of the latter back from my dad.) I'm now about knee deep in a change-of-pace book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden by John Thorn. Pretty cool read so far, and I recommend it for anyone that enjoys the game. (Probably no review coming on this one, though as the saying goes, "Never say never.")

I know I usually include images from the books I've read, but I don't have any right now. Instead, here's an historically accurate depiction of life during the Late Cretaceous.

With as much reading as I've managed to do lately, I shudder to imagine the progress I would have made if I wasn't so busy back home in Big Timber with the family. For the sake of brevity, I'll stick to highlights. I had the pleasure of attending a Missoula Children's Theatre production of The Pied Piper, starring my older nieces, Jillian and Paige, in key supporting roles. (They were key because they're the only reason I'd pay money to see the play.) I also spent a couple of weekends in Big Timber so I could watch the girls in their youth-league basketball games. 

The best part of the past month though was probably taking Jillian to see Jurassic Park in 3D. At 9, she's only a few months younger than I was during the film's first theatrical run. I wasn't impressed with the 3D, but I'm not a fan of the medium. At least it gave Universal an excuse to put the movie back in theaters. Anyway, while I did some other interesting things over these past few weeks, I think I've made my point that being a good uncle is hard work.

Speaking of hard work, I can pretend I did some during the whole Makoshika State Park fiasco here in Montana. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, I blogged about it. For those who have not kept up with the bill's progress, over the past several weeks it met little resistance in either house of the Montana state legislature. (For the full rundown of events, here's the link: I am proud to report that despite the misguided and uninformed intentions of "my" legislators, Governor Steve Bullock emphatically vetoed MT House Bill 392 on 25 April. (They are clearly "my" legislators by default. I wouldn't trust them to decide what I should have for supper.) Here's a re-enactment of the governor flexing his veto power:

I believe this is a great victory for paleontology, helping to ensure that recovered fossils will stay within the scientific community and keeping government officials from sticking their noses into our business. (As a testament to their poor grasp of this matter, here's audio from one of the bill's hearings: Skip ahead to 1:26:47 for some real talk from the bill's sponsor, Representative Alan Doane.) As a final note on the subject, the "Current Bill Progress" on the bill's official page is listed as "Probably Dead", making it one of the few dead things that don't matter to paleontologists.

The letter from Governor Bullock announcing his decision to veto HB 392.

I must have rambled more than I originally intended, as I've reached a desirable length for this post and I still have a number of topics I meant to cover. I guess that means I've got something to blog about later in the week. I'm definitely looking forward to it. 

For those of you who've waited patiently for me to come back to my writing, thanks for keeping hope alive. For anyone that didn't, I forgive you. Unfortunately, the time has come for me to sign off and take my brain train to another station, so I'll talk to you all the next time I come around. Goodnight, everybody!

Notes: Dr. Neil Shubin is on Twitter(@NeilShubin), though he doesn't use it much. (He uses his more than Jack Horner though...) John Thorn(@thorn_john) uses Twitter as well. Not sure how many people are interested in the thoughts of the Official Historian for Major League Baseball, but at least he's not a Kardashian.

Is God a Monkey?

About 6000 years ago in a place undefined by space, God was sitting in his lab pondering his next course of action. He had just created existence, but it needed time to cool off before he could do any experiments. God had grown weary of being alone and creating a universe for friends to live in seemed like the easiest solution. Turns out that making worlds was quite a chore, as very few of the heavenly bodies God created were capable of sustaining life.

God was not deterred. All he needed was one good planet for his friends. He made hundreds of interesting creatures to populate it but decided that someone made in his image would be best suited to rule over that world whenever he was busy.

He set out immediately to make these future kings. He broke out his trusty organism-making set and began picking the right chromosomes for the task. Being omnipotent is tough in the morning, so God had some coffee and a jelly donut to get his motor running. He was in a hurry, and some of the jelly filling got on his equipment. God quickly cleaned up the mess and carried on with his work without giving another thought to his sticky blunder.

After toiling for hours, God had assembled the perfect embryo, something that would grow into a mortal version of him. It would be his greatest triumph, and all it needed was a couple of days in his Easy-Life Oven. God inserted the embryo, set the timer, and went off to sculpt fake fossils.

When the timer sounded, God returned to see his new friend and was appalled at what he found. This creature had very little fur, stood completely upright, and made noises that seemed to be gibberish. Since God could use the company, he decided to keep this abomination around and took to calling it Adam.

Some time passed before God began noticing that Adam longed for a companion of his own. Being mortal, he had a natural desire to reproduce, and God saw no reason to deny him that urge. Unfortunately, he didn't know how exactly Adam was formed and would need to review the original process to find the error. As a bonus, God realized, finding his mistake would allow him to finally create his master species.

Later on while pouring over his notes, God had his "eureka" moment. Nothing in his work jumped out as an obvious flaw, but he remembered the jelly mishap from that day. Some chromosomes must have inadvertently been stuck together during the assembly process! God was amazed at how different two creatures could be because of such a small change.

With the problem identified, it wasn't long before God found the bothersome chromosomes and adjusted his notes accordingly. To create a female, he knew that some fundamental changes would be required, but the process would be similar. God went to work immediately, assembling the embryo for the creature he decided to call Eve. He then thoroughly cleaned his workstation and put together a male and female of the species he had initially sought. Luckily, his oven had room for four. He placed the three embryos on the rack and put in a pot pie for dinner.

While eating, God decided that when the creatures emerged from their incubation, the time would be right to send them to the planet he was calling Earth. He would miss having the company, but his time would be better spent observing what had become his grand experiment. God's only obstacle now was time.

The two days went by slowly. God's path was permanently carved into his floor from the pacing. The bell rang, and his creatures were ready. First from the oven came Eve, and she was a beautiful specimen. Adam was visibly pleased with the result. Next came the unknown quantities, those creatures God had set out to make as his mortal duplicates.

The destined rulers of Earth emerged, perfect in the eyes of their creator. God was awestruck at these beings that stood before him. He had faith in his methodology but was skeptical after his recent failure. God didn't feel right in giving them names, as he felt that such a high species should choose for themselves. 

Before he sent his four latest creations to Earth, God assigned terms to both pairs for reference in his notes. Adam and Eve were dubbed "humans", but he felt that his master species deserved a more distinguished title. From that point on, God would call these creatures "chimpanzees".

Who doesn't love Angel Food Cake or Alton Brown from Good Eats?

The Part of This in Which I'm Being Serious

I initially intended this story as a brief lead-in to my blog post. It kind of took off on me, so I apologize. Anyway, I've been thinking a lot on the influence that religious belief can have on scientific research. Generally, a scientist that considers religious dogma as part of his process will steer his results toward that outcome, and that is just backwards science.

I'll use my story as an example of similar bias. An impartial reader may notice some microscopic particles of science inside. However, an individual of the pious persuasion might not even read the whole story because of the frightening amount of heresy involved, unless they wanted fodder for the comments section.

I know I'm picking on religion right now, but it has been a major thorn in the paw of science for centuries. Unfortunately, God is just everyone's favorite whipping boy these days, and bad science is spawning from less apparent places. Hollywood is a major source, and I'm not even going to talk about movies.

It's pretty apparent that celebrities have been interjecting themselves into political issues since "celebrities" became a term, and science began grappling with politics when agendas were invented. As the breeding ground for these "celebrities", Hollywood has acted as an impediment to progress for some time now. It seems that several brilliant scientific and political minds chose to pursue their love of acting so they could use the resulting fame as a vessel to better deliver their ideas to humanity.

Two major issues come to mind when I think of meddling actors: fracking and GMO's. (For those that aren't in the know, that's genetically modified organisms. Apparently it's cool to modify people, but not food. I won't even get into preservatives and artificial flavors.)

I'm not overly concerned that fracking gets a bad rap, but I'm amused by Matt Damon's disdain for it, which he clearly demonstrated in Promised Land. (I know I said no movies, but this one is politically charged bad science. An op-ed piece in the New York Times paints a different picture regarding the science behind the fracking process and the threats it poses to nearby communities. (I'll leave readers to to form their own opinions. It's a right bestowed upon us by the big chimpanzee in the sky.

It turns out that GMO's are a much simpler issue. Science is doing battle with a populace that has an overpowering fear of the unknown. The idea of "playing God" in any context makes most people uneasy, especially when it involves something we consume. (Even atheists seem to ride this train. I guess they're cool with God as a euphemism.) This fear has resulted in a couple of notable events.

This past year, the state of California tried to pass a proposition requiring all foods containing GMO's to be labelled accordingly, but it was voted down( The latest cause comes from Whole Foods, a prominent North American grocery chain. They announced last week that by 2018, they won't sell any products containing GMO's unless their packaging meets the company's labelling standards( 

This move strikes me as a knee-jerk reaction intended to convince potential consumers that Whole Foods will be the best place to shop for the foreseeable future. (The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations posted a pair of articles on their site in 2003 detailing pros,, and cons,, of GMO's. As usual, nothing is black and white, unless you're playing chess.)

From my recent observations, I've come to believe that religion isn't the only reason for the persecution of science. It's also a fear of change and the necessary paradigm shift resulting from scientific discoveries. As far as Catholics were concerned, Galileo tried to make the earth travel in circles and Darwin made monkeys into our uncles. 

Religions have even taken aim at each other. When polytheism was prominent, Egyptians persecuted the Jews and Romans took up arms against Christianity. We all know how these both worked out.

To be painfully honest, I think that most of these problems stem from a fear of being wrong. If a single part of someone's belief structure is proven false, the remaining pieces tend to topple like dominoes. Fighting for what you believe as an individual or society isn't about the cause. It's about what defines you. Losing that fight takes away your identity and leaves you without purpose.

This is why I enjoy science. Research is based on the idea that you have to be wrong repeatedly until you find the solution. Even then, you've usually just found an answer that you couldn't disprove. What really makes science great is that the only way you can truly be wrong is if you ever believe you're right, and in order to succeed, the only thing you have to believe in is yourself.

Notes: For the sake of clarity, I'm agnostic. Being atheist seems like being religious without the deity. I've got better things to do than picking a side. Besides, religion can't be proven absolutely wrong or right, so neither argument merits my dedication.

I'll be off for the weekend, so no new posts for a little while. I should finish Written in Stone while I'm away, so there's that.

Yes, I intended the "Highway to Hell" video from my last post to foreshadow this one. That's all I've got. As always, feedback in the comments section or on Twitter is welcome!

The Voices in My Head Discuss Science Communication

Science communication seems like a pretty hot topic these days, but I've been hesitant to write about it. I just wasn't sure if my thoughts on the subject would merit their own post. Despite my reservations, I decided that it couldn't hurt to throw in my two cents. I'll lean toward objective assessment based on personal experience, but that's usually where opinions come from. I try to avoid having those since I know I'll be some degree of wrong no matter what.

For the sake of discussion, I've boiled SciComm down to three relevant types of involvement: scientist, science writer, and science reader. These are clearly not definitive roles, but most people fit pretty neatly into one of them. (I've omitted those that fit into a fourth category I like to call unscientists.) Where things get murky and people seem to take sides is when these roles get called into question. What better way to address this questioning than by answering hypothetical questions about it?

Why do we even need science writers? Don't scientists know how to write?

This may be a simplification of a common discussion, but cutting off the fat leaves only the meat to chew on. From what I've seen, scientists have to be capable technical writers. This format, however, is very specific and painfully redundant. As someone who has written and read his fair share of technical reports, I feel confident in saying a casual reader would rather watch Dancing with the Stars

While some scientists are able to write for a broad audience, it is unfair to expect it from all of them. If a researcher doesn't have a knack or desire for writing this way, I don't think they should have to try. I'd rather they concentrate on the science thing and leave the wordsmithing to people that enjoy it.

This isn't really applicable, but I needed something to break up the text. Everybody loves cats, right?

Wouldn't it be more efficient to have the scientists do all of the writing?

In terms of cost, having any researcher do the promoting of their work seems to be the obvious option. They tend to work on a salary, so added hours won't cost their employer. This argument lacks any real merit though. A lot of science writing is funded and published by third parties, so the employing agency has already maximized their cost. Besides, any scientist that wants two jobs for the price of one may be insane.

As far as time goes, this is probably a push. The scientist's advantage lies in writing the initial report and having a full grasp of its contents. On the other hand, the science writers sometimes receive the reports in advance of publication and are adept at learning on the fly. Once a science writer knows what they're reading, they know what they want to write.

Aren't scientists the most capable people for communicating their ideas to the general public?

While they certainly have the strongest understanding of the subject matter, I've found that scientists have difficulty relating with the target audience. This can be tough when their knowledge of a topic is notably beyond that of the reader. People like to feel smart, and reading an article written by a post-doctoral researcher seems to have an opposite effect.

Since a science writer is learning as they review the subject material, they are in a wonderful position to teach the concepts to their readers. The writers can identify key points, stumbling blocks, and complex jargon and use them as learning objectives. This may sound like a lot of work for a review of a report, but this is the type of writing most science enthusiasts read. We may see a shift as open access gains prevalence, but magazines and blogs will probably still serve the audience best.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Though I have projected a general idea that scientists should take a secondary role in science communication, I do know first hand that some of them are pretty good at it. I certainly don't read their blogs for my health. I just think that maintaining a loose hierarchy between scientist, science writer, and science reader helps control the flow of information. This ensures that the casual learner doesn't get inundated with knowledge and lose interest. 

In my mind, a scientist's best work in the SciComm area is doing blog updates while their research is in progress. It gives the interested populace a better idea of the process and allows for a bit of a distraction when the science isn't being cooperative. Blogging the research also serves as a way to look back on a day's work, look forward to the next step, and chronicle discoveries as they happen.

I also believe a scientist appreciates the new perspective they gain when a science writer publishes a review of their work. I know that when I write something, I won't let myself think that I did a good job until I'm told so repeatedly. Even then, I'm skeptical. I also know that feedback is a writer's best friend, whether their work is technical, creative, or journalistic. Getting formally reviewed by another published writer is the most in-depth form of feedback I can imagine.

This concludes my interview with myself. I hope it was enjoyable even if it wasn't really informative. I'm thinking I may do a round-table discussion some time in the future. You can never have too many perspectives on a topic, even if they're all coming from the same person.

Notes: After nearly a week without posting, I'm thinking that something on back-to-back days is in order. Next up will be my thoughts on science, religion, paradigms, and cake. Soon after will be my eagerly anticipated review of Written in Stone. (I know I've been looking forward to it. I'm always surprised at what I end up writing.) Feedback!

Vote WTF!!! on Montana House Bill 392

Yesterday was an interesting day. I was between classes and catching up on Twitter news when I was introduced to Montana House Bill 392. As a Montana resident for nearly three decades and a lifelong dino-fanatic, it was basically the worst thing I could have read. In no phase of existence is there a way I could stand back and wait for an outcome. What follows is the letter I drafted opposing the bill.

Attachment 1 is Sarah Werning's "Why Paleontology is Relevant(", Attachment 2 is the SVP Member Bylaw on Ethics Statement(, and Attachment 3( is an article from The Gainesville Sun reporting Eric Prokopi's guilty plea with a summary of events in the Tarbosaurus incident. (I referenced the specimen as a Tyrannosaurus bataar in my letter to maintain continuity with this piece.)

I have addressed this letter to the bill's sponsor in the Montana House, Representative Alan Doane, and I also composed a slightly modified version for my state representative, Alan Redfield. I'll have them in the mail today, giving both men something fun to read when they get to work on Monday. 

I have intentionally left the Montana House of Representatives contact address visible so anyone who wishes to contact Rep. Doane may do so without digging for information. If you like the way my letter reads, you are welcome to use it as a template. I only ask that you make it your own. (If you ask nicely, I'll even e-mail you a copy.)

For detailed information on MT House Bill 392, you can go to the state website( It is scheduled for a hearing in committee today, but regardless of the outcome, we need to push them on this. If the bill fails, I believe they'll keep trying in their effort to sell off our state's greatest scientific contribution to fund a tourist trap. (I realize the term is harsh, but the state of Montana sees parks as revenue streams instead of natural exhibits.)

I strongly encourage anyone who has not contacted the Montana legislature regarding this matter to do so immediately. A contact information portal for all sitting members is available for those who want to really drive the point home( I thank you all for your attention and concern in this matter, and as always, I welcome feedback both here and through Twitter!

Note: I have now read 73% of Written in Stone and should have my Kindle edition review up next week, courtesy my spring break. I'll have at least one other post before that, but I'm not telling what it is!

Cannibalism in the Age of Dinosaurs: A Love Story

Many times with science, I've had a question answered before I knew I wanted to ask. This wasn't quite the case with Dr. David Hone's latest venture, but his new research project still made me wonder about something that might not have otherwise crossed my mind. The study itself isn't even the most interesting part. Dr. Hone is attempting to crowd-fund the research for publication in an open-access journal.

I won't venture too deeply into the finer points of the project, but I will say that it involves dinosaurs eating each other. (If I tell you too much, you'll be less inclined to visit the website. Let your curiosity be your guide. Before we tumble into a mess regarding the food chain, circle of life, and maybe a secret agent platypus, I should expand on the notion.

Everybody knows that dinosaurs ate each other. The historical relationship between predator and prey has been well documented through extensive biological study. Dr. Hone is setting out to prove that dinosaurs of the same species ate each other. (If we're lucky, he'll also discover whether or not they were delicious.)

Each contributor to the project will be entered into a raffle for this beautiful artwork courtesy of Luis Rey.

The name of this effort is Project Daspletosaurus. For those not in the know, Daspletosaurus(frightful lizard) is a genus of tyrannosaurine tyrannosaurid, which is a fancy way of saying it's a cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex.

They were an apex predator during the Upper Cretaceous Epoch between 77 and 74 million years ago, and current fossil evidence indicates that Daspletosaurus lived in what is now western North America. (If you want to know more, roll like me and check out the Wikipedia entry. Knowing that they ate everything else, it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to imagine Daspletosauruses eating each other if push came to shove.

Throughout Earth's history, several cases of cannibalism have been observed. Most notably, two events in recent human history involve people from non-cannibalistic cultures engaging in the act for the sake of survival. These incidents have evolved to the point of inappropriate joking, but the reality that members of an advanced species would ever eat each other speaks against more primitive creatures having reservations about such behavior. (For more info about recent human cannibalism, The Donner Party:, The Miracle of the Andes: Read at your own discretion.)

Here's Kup telling Grimlock an old war story from Cybertron. (Needed something to lighten the mood.)

While I don't know what the results of Dr. Hone's research will be, I feel confident that his work will be thorough and any conclusions will be drawn cautiously. I'll admit that anyone willing to put their reputation on the line by soliciting donated funding has to be a strange combination of dedicated and crazy, but that's the type of person I look to when I want a job done right.

If you would like to contribute, visit the Project Daspletosaurus website( for the sake of your scroll wheel), or you can buy some cool merchandise at David Orr's online store with proceeds going to the cause( I not only endorse this project, but I've already purchased a tee shirt and donated some money. With a little more help we can get this done. As a final message for Dr. Hone:

Notes: As of this writing, 22 days remain on the fundraiser with 70% funded. I see no reason to cap it at 100. 

Twitter handle: David Orr - @anatotitan

Inside the Name of The Joe

In my last post, I brought up the possibility that in the near future I would explain the alias appearing in my blog title. Since I'm not feeling overly serious today, I just as well follow through on this threat. Before I get to that, I have another blog-naming issue to address, brought forward by  Dr. John Hutchinson:

I won't get into details about the URL name, but I will address it for the sake of those interested. Using Effigia for the blog URL is a dedication to the person who inspires me to put my best foot forward and is the real driving force behind this blog and my pursuit of dinosaur knowledge. I appreciate the irony that Effigia is a rauisuchian, but the origin of my interest in the creature isn't a story that will ever be published.

Adding my own picture of Effigia sounds like a fun idea. I've always liked drawing, and this would afford me the opportunity to delve into paleo art. Thanks to the writing of Dr. Thomas Holtz in a book I previously discussed, I have a nice overview of the process and feel comfortable giving it a try. (Props to Luis V. Rey for his contributions to that book as well.) When I complete the project, I'll write a post about Effigia to accompany the picture. Based on my history, this could be anywhere from next week to 2023. (I'm leaning toward sooner over later, but I get distracted easily.)

Before I move on to the main subject, I think this is a good time to mention that I really enjoy answering questions and addressing ideas when I write. If any of my readers have a suggestion or query they feel would be relevant and/or interesting, I would love to hear it. I am generally an open book and reader feedback gives my writing a more conversational feel. (It's also a great source of blog ideas that I don't have to come up with.)

Now that we're past the prologue, I can imagine my nickname has inspired some level of curiosity in most of my audience. It's quite a story, and the hardest part for me is trying to find a good beginning. As strange as this may sound, the narrative will revolve pretty heavily around the TV show Firefly. (This will make a world of sense later.)

I suppose things really start with an interview Nathan Fillion did for Entertainment Weekly in February of 2011 upon the announcement that Science Channel had acquired broadcast rights for Firefly(Article: Ironically, I had not seen any episodes of the show prior to the interview, but I became an instant fan after viewing all 14 of them. (I was fairly certain of this outcome, as I had seen the movie Serenity a number of times. Heck, I already owned it on blu-ray.) Comments Fillion made about purchasing the show spurred a fan movement to help him bring it back. This grew into another, more worthy cause.

Back in 2008, Fillion co-founded Kids Need to Read along with PJ Haarsma and Denise Gary(KNTR: Their mission was pretty straightforward: provide schools and public libraries with quality books to promote literacy and creative thinking in children. (I strongly suggest visiting their website. It's a great foundation, and Denise is super cool.)

When the fan movement, cleverly named "Help Nathan Buy Firefly", began to succumb to the reality of their futility, they diverted their energy to helping KNTR. If they couldn't bring back Nathan's show, they could still contribute to something he loves. This led to a remarkably successful charity drive that I had some involvement in promoting.

I made this poster for the KNTR book/fund drive. I take pride in knowing I've helped such a wonderful organization.

While my involvement in the Firefly cause was primarily observational, I am grateful that I had come along for the ride. I hoped they could succeed, but I knew in my heart that it was a fool's errand. As the immortal Jayne Cobb said, "If wishes were horses, we'd all be eating steak." (We'll ride on past the discussion of horse as a viable meat source. I won't eat it, but you can if you like.) If not for this lost cause, I would still be in the dark about a great foundation in Kids Need to Read and the wonderful people that work there. (I also have a lot of cool autographed memorabilia from their holiday auction in 2011.)

The Wil Wheaton-signed Wesley Crusher plate I bought from KNTR. My favorite item is the Star Trek graphic novel signed by Leonard Nimoy, but it's unavailable for photographing.

When all of this was first starting, KNTR had a regular Facebook profile rather than an organizational page. I added them as a friend to follow along with their endeavors. Some time after the fundraiser, they were notified that their profile was a violation of the terms of use and they needed to start a page. (Turns out profiles are only for people. Facebook is surprisingly strict.) The administrators gave notice to all of their Facebook friends and started the first Kids Need to Read fan page.

You might not believe this, but I'm not always a very serious person. I became one of the first "Likes" on the new page and immediately became the first to write on their wall with something that sadly no longer exists: "Bam! My name is Joe, and I approve this page." (They discovered soon after that they could export their profile friends as "Likes" to a page and deleted this original incarnation. I also wrote my message on the new wall.)

The comments on my post were priceless. Since they are no longer accessible, I can only do my best to paraphrase from memory. The first questioned the validity of my saying "Bam!", pointing out that it was "the lady" who originally said it. Little did that person know, they were creating a bit of a monster. Someone from KNTR, Denise I believe, replied, "Maybe it should be Bam says the Joe!" I took an instant liking to this moniker, because it's catchy and is the first I've been pegged with that has any sense of originality. I updated my Facebook profile to reflect the change, and I've used the nickname on some level ever since.

My going-away mug from my first duty station in England depicting a nickname I had acquired there. The underlying quote is a story for another day.

Over my life thus far, nearly 30 years and counting, my name has seen an irregular and fascinating  progression. My birth name is Joseph Ryan Hancock, and it seemed to work fine until I was 12. (My dad calls me JR on occasion, but that's a father/son thing.) For some reason, my teachers that year took to shortening my first name. This made sense so I went with it. The moment I knew I would never be known as Joseph again was when I got my first report card the next year. Every other card had my given name written on it, but this one called me Joe.

From there, I've been called several things that worked with the name but nothing that stuck. (This is how I was briefly tagged with Joe Dirt.) I picked up the nickname G.I. Joe on two separate occasions, but one of my favorites came during Air Force basic training. My primary training instructor took to calling me Cock, and I was drawn to the unique nature and surprising accuracy. (I can be one on occasion, but I do my best to play nicely.)

Even though a lot of people have given me a lot of names over the years, I've always come back to being known as Joe. Since getting a Ph.D. is more of a long-term goal, being known as Dr. Joe will have to wait. Until then, I'll settle for The Joe whenever I'm in formal company.

Notes: A couple of potential future topics: science communication, the clash between science and religion. Also, I'm 28% through Written in Stone by Brian Switek with a review of the Kindle version forthcoming.  Any thoughts on these would be greatly appreciated. 

Twitter handles: Nathan Fillion - @NathanFillion, Kids Need to Read - @kidsneedtoread, Wil Wheaton - @wilw, Leonard Nimoy - @TheRealNimoy, PJ Haarsma - @PJhaarsma

Giving Thanks

Given the serious nature of my last post, I feel that I should lighten things up a bit by acknowledging those who have helped expand my audience. Before I get to that, I just want to thank everyone who has taken the time to read what I've had to write. I would never have guessed that I'd have so much traffic in my first week of blogging. You all are the best!

My first big thank you goes to Dr. Andrew Farke, a curator at Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology and contributor to The Integrative Paleontologists blog.

Talking to Dr. Farke online played a fairly major role in the birth of this blog. I won't go into details about our conversations, but here's how they started:

I don't expect everyone to understand the meaning of this video. I've just been looking for an excuse to post it.

Since I'm working in a chronological fashion, I had better mention Jon Tennant next. As my previous post would indicate, his seemingly innocuous question put my brain into hyperdrive, resulting in my most popular post to date.

Jon seems to spend a lot of his time promoting open access for research publications, and he has a blog, Green Tea and Velociraptors. Not bad for a Ph.D. student. There's more of a bio on his blog page, so go there and read it. (By it, I mean the bio and the blog.)

Next up is Bora Zivkovic, blog editor for Scientific American. I sent him a link to my blog asking if he would promote it, feeling that while he might not agree with me, his sharing of my work would speak to the quality of it.

Let's face it. When the Blogfather takes the time to read and advertise your writing, it's a huge boost to the ego. I've always taken pride in my wordsmithing ability, but positive feedback in any form never hurts. Unfortunately, Mr. Zivkovic recently suffered a loss, as his iPhone went for a swim. Condolences may be directed to his Twitter handle shown above.

Finally, I give thanks to a man who dealt with a real loss earlier this month, Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr, who's father recently passed(obituary: Knowing what my dad means to me, I can only imagine how Dr. Holtz is feeling at this time, and my heart goes out to him.

After my second post, I felt that giving notice to Dr. Holtz was advised since I had briefly reviewed one of his books. His response caught me a bit off guard.

Because my Twitter handle was omitted, I didn't know that this was posted until hours later. (To be fair, I would probably have seen it if I'd kept up with my feed during the day. I was a bad panda.) I found out when I did because the views for that post were going up, and I felt compelled to figure out why.

My search wasn't too time consuming, especially given the discovery. As my initial message to Dr. Holtz was a courtesy that I felt warranted no more than a brief reply, finding that he had broadcast my writing to his friends, family, and followers gave me a bit of a jolt. (For those wondering, his Twitter and Facebook accounts are linked.) I felt like I had attended a birthday party and someone got me a present.

I would be remiss if I didn't recognize the feedback I received from Kate Wong, Dr. David Hone, and Dr. Heinrich Mallison, the latter of whom became my first commenter(see second post).

I could have posted the tweet of Dr. Hone wishing me luck, but this is more fun. Also, now he can't steal the phrase. He's welcome to borrow it though. While I'm feeling silly:

Back to being serious, I'm also grateful for everyone that retweeted, commented on, or otherwise shared my work. Knowing that my blog is being read by people involved with the field and those with a passion for following it is the greatest affirmation I can receive. I truly feel blessed and wish I could thank you all personally.

Now that what I believe to be the blog version of a clip show is winding down, I apologize for the lack of any new revelations. I had to lower the bar somewhat after my last post. Really though, I feel I have set a standard for myself that I hope my readers will hold me to, and my goal is to not let any of you down. (I accept this as impossible, given that I'm writing on the Internet, unless I specifically exclude trolls from my observed audience.)

Since I'm in the middle of a book, I think I'll use my next post to explain the nickname I'm using in the blog title. I accept that it isn't the most relevant of content, but I do promise that it's an interesting story. From there I can't be certain, but I suspect I'll at least be providing a progress report on my current reading, though I'm certainly open to questions and ideas. I'm going to stop now before I ramble this into a novel. Feel free to hit me with feedback. Thanks for stopping by.

P.S. Previously unmentioned Twitter handles: Scientific American - @sciam, Dr. Heinrich Mallison - @H_Mallison. If you don't have a Twitter account, you're getting your science too slowly. Go take care of it.

Jon Tennant Asked Me a Question, So I'm Giving Him an Answer

I've been looking forward to writing this post for a few days now. As much as I enjoy the process of story telling like I did in my previous entries, I find editorial work to be more challenging. A blog post  by Sarah Werning, titled "Why Paleontology is Relevant"(, triggered a brief Twitter discussion between Brian Switek, Jon Tennant, and me. The result was a great question requiring a thoughtful answer which will hopefully provoke further discussion.

I'm generally not one for causes, because so many of them are are fast burners or seem to require a hive-mind philosophy. When I do pick a battle, I feel it's something I can directly affect on some level, and it's a battle I plan on winning. The rebuilding of science education will require the right people having good ideas and the willingness to push through any resistance, and I will do everything I can to be a part of it.

In my mind, the most important aspect of science is the collaborative nature of discoveries and advancement. There are big names that get most of the credit, but it takes a team to make progress. Changing the way science is taught is no different. Individuals can have minimal impact on the science of education, but the collective efforts of a group of like-minded individuals can change the way the world approaches teaching.

Common sense dictates that changing societal perspective begins with young people. Working to convince adults that their thinking isn't compatible with modern ideas is akin to trying to harvest pears from an apple tree. For paleontology to gain relevance as a real part of biology, we need to change the way children are taught science. 

Between recollection of my own childhood and a limited exposure to elementary schools over the past year, I've noticed that science has become an endless battle to see which teacher's students can memorize the most frivolous information about the modern world. There are millions of people in the United States that know roughly how fast a cheetah can run, but only a handful of them have any use for that information. Instead of building a mausoleum of knowledge inside a child's mind, we're just pitching a series of trivial pup tents.

The best model I can think of for science education is the growth of a tree. Construction of a building is also nice, but discussing foundations has become rather cliché. As every tree starts as a seed, every child's education should too. Most kids tend to mentally latch on to something that is cool and markedly different. This is where paleontologists have an advantage over traditional biologists. It turns out that dinosaurs are the coolest and most different thing a lot of children are exposed to. Thus far, the education system's chief failure is in not properly cultivating this seed.

From left to right: Jillian, Paige, dracaena tree, Macen, Shaela (nieces, nephew, plant)

The common populace believes paleontologists to be dinosaur hunters. I liken this to calling a rhombus a square. Addressing this misnomer at an early age would do wonders for the field and would probably get some children to defect to different branches within the field to study other remarkable creatures. By fertilizing it with the right combination of information and attention, the proverbial child's mind will become a seedling.

As a tree develops, it begins to branch out and requires more and more nourishment. To address this, we ensure it has plenty of room to flourish and fertilize it as needed. We use the same type and quality of food, but we increase the quantity. To the kids, the food type is dinosaurs, and the increased quantity is in the diversity of the studies.  

Through this interest in paleontology, we can discuss the fossil record and introduce children to the broader points of geology. Providing this early knowledge of the earth's formation and composition gives students a base that allows them to be more confident in learning about the more advanced physical sciences. Children who believe in themselves are like paint-by-number Picasso's. The hard part is done and if a teacher takes the time to do the job right, they will bear witness to something awesome and wonderful.

Now, the base of the tree is what really matters. The thicker it gets, the longer the branches can become. In this example, that base is biology. Using the children's interest in dinosaurs, we can introduce them to many facets of modern life science. A great start is using the evolution of non-avian theropods into birds as a stepping stone into comparative anatomy. From here, we can branch further into general tetrapodal structures and progress to the remaining known vertebrates. We might even find time to mention invertebrates. Kids do seem to enjoy jellyfish. (I'm kidding of course. If it was ever alive, it needs to be taught to some degree in school.)

Next, the tree will develop into a sapling with a solid root system. Moving forward, it will be mostly self sufficient, given that someone is there to provide a helping hand when it starts to struggle. At this point in the science education, a teacher's job is to be little more than a guide.  The text is provided and the kids have a preliminary understanding of the material. As long as the teacher is confident, knowledgeable and personable, he or she should have no problems giving the students the help they need to succeed.

Sometimes I wonder if I live in a jungle or an apartment. As long as I have internet, I guess it doesn't matter.

As wonderful as this system may sound, it is an unfortunate fact of life that not every tree grows to maturity. Some don't even sprout from the seed. The same can be said for students. Educators have a responsibility to accept this fact and divert attention to the students that have a chance to make it. This analogy fails in a fortunate area, as unlike trees, humans feel compassion and have a desire to help each other. A wise teacher will utilize this, encouraging the best students to reinforce the ideas to those that are falling behind. This increases the success rate, but some level of failure is unavoidable.

A major shortcoming of the current educational system is the quality of the teaching pool. I've heard it said that those who cannot do, teach. This idea is at its core rather illogical. I would much rather learn how to throw a curveball from Sandy Koufax than from his pitching coach. So many of the best and brightest minds finish college and move on to graduate programs and research, leaving the business and liberal arts majors to teach high school chemistry. If some of these graduate candidates moved on at some point to teach at the lower levels, they would be doing academia a great service and might even make more money. (Just a little grad school humor there.) This isn't an unrealistic path for me. Even if I pursue a Ph.D., I won't ever rule out the idea of teaching at any level.

Since my thinking revolves around science education, one could easily perceive that the more fundamental areas of schooling are being neglected. I don't have much concern in that regard. It turns out that science requires a high level of literacy, a firm grasp of language, and advanced math skills. Forgive me if this seems a bit facetious, but aren't those fancy ways of identifying the three R's?

I've heard a lot of people over the years talk about what needs to happen to fix just about every problem that has ever arisen. This has taught me that being a man of words means that you like to sit and burn excess oxygen for your own enjoyment. If someone has an idea that they truly believe in but don't think they have the influence to implement it, it should be their prerogative to find someone that does. 

As advanced as this challenge is, I must only accept one truth: it won't happen overnight. By writing this blog, I've already taken the first step. From here, I can encourage everyone to contact school administrators and political officials at the local, regional, and national levels to promote this broad-scope change in science philosophy. Giving those in power the right knowledge is important, but patience in the system is critical. We all must understand that change requires calculated persistence.

I honestly believe that this change is coming. As with any deficient system, it's inevitable. A field of grass is easy to grow, but the plant is stunted and weak. My goal is to start planting orchards of tall, stout, and bountiful trees capable of handling almost anything. As nature allows, the grass will still grow around them. I won't be able to do this alone, but if enough of us work together as confident individuals, we can make the world of science a place that everyone wants to be.

Note: Sarah Werning is also on Twitter, @sarahwerning.