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.

Where I'm At and How I Got Here

While I don't plan on writing a post every day moving forward, I figured I've got enough of a backlog of topics to justify more frequent updates. Since I've already given a detailed background of who I am, I felt that the next logical step was to summarize my previous dinosaur studies so everyone knows where I've been and I have a better idea of where I'm going.

To preface things a bit, I plan on only discussing books I've been reading. There are a number of blogs I try to keep up with, but the vast array of topics that are covered would dominate my time if I chose to discuss them. I've provided a list of the blogs I read and will likely make mention of the authors from time to time.

Anyway, I suppose I'll get started with a book I read in the summer of 2011 but had purchased months earlier. I was perusing the discount book table at the campus bookstore when I stumbled across How to Build a Dinosaur by Jack Horner with James Gorman for $6( I wasn't sure what to think, but it made mention of a chickenosaurus, so I was sold.

The research outlined in this book makes me excited about the direction of modern science.

I stumbled through the text as best I could, but since the focus of the text is evolutionary developmental biology, I tended to get lost frequently. This is a book that made me wish I had taken at least one biology course in high school. Despite my struggles, I enjoyed the material and completed it in a couple of weeks of sporadic reading. I would definitely recommend it for anyone that appreciates that dinosaurs and paleontology are actually important to advancing science and are not just hobbies.

After completing How to Build a Dinosaur, I went on a bit of a hiatus from dinosaur books, because I was attempting to throttle my interest so I could concentrate on school. As is usual when the words "was attempting" are included in a sentence, the term "did fail" is an appropriate conclusion. By the spring of 2012, I was trolling Amazon for anything that was written by paleontologists I'm familiar with, be they hard copy or Kindle books. Over the past year and change, I've accumulated a pretty decent library of relevant material that will continue to grow as long as new books keep popping up.

Thus far, I have managed to complete reading on two other texts. The first is Dinosaurs With Special Reference to the American Museum Collections by William Diller Matthew( I was especially excited that it was free as an eBook and would let me test out the new Kindle. Since this was initially published in 1915, I knew that a large portion of the book would be inaccurate based on current research, but I felt it would be beneficial to gain a better historical perspective of the field. 

The reading took me less than a week, and I found many things of note, be they humorously incorrect or just plain interesting. Some things that jumped out at me were speculation that apatosaurus was viviparous, discussion about T. rex possibly being a scavenger, and the frequent mentions of the similarities between theropod dinosaurs and birds without explicitly making the connection that seems so obvious today. The book also makes reference to the Comanchic and Cretacic Periods, which are known now as the Cretaceous. I'm a bit disappointed that those names weren't kept on some level for reference, but such is life. I won't even get into the issues with the geologic time scale, because they didn't have radiometric dating to help them. Some of the information may be incorrect, but the entire book was educational. I look forward to reading it again and being able to dedicate a lot more time and space to talking about it.

The most recent book that I have actually completed is Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-Date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages by Thomas Holtz( This book is geared toward the teenage crowd, but given my layman's knowledge of the field, it was a great fit. Being illustrated by Luis Rey allowed me to overlook to remarkably bulky title and really made the book fun to flip through. 

As with every hardcover book I own, I immediately removed the dust jacket. Turns out that the backside is a nifty poster.

This was the first book that I attempted to read during the academic year. I found it difficult at times to make progress due to my schedule, but Dr. Holtz's more casual writing style allowed me to flow through the text quickly when I had the chance to sit with it. I appreciated the level at which the book discussed phylogeny and cladistics, as I was previously unfamiliar with the latter. I also felt that the chapters were well ordered, allowing the reader to go from one dinosaur grouping to the next without getting lost in the shuffle. Honestly though, the best things about this book are probably the comprehensive list of dinosaur species and the series of updates Dr. Holtz provides on his website( 

My only real issue was the repetitive nature of some of the reading. I felt at times as if each chapter was intended to be an individual publication. I moved past the problem in an orderly fashion, as the wealth of knowledge and wry humor were more than worth the minor annoyance this caused. Dinosaurs was a great stepping stone to more advanced material, but my next selection was probably a bit more than I could handle.

I decided on Dinosaur Paleobiology by Stephen Brusatte as the next phase of my studies( I managed to brute force my way through a couple of chapters, but I was getting bogged down in terms I had never heard before. I am disappointed to be putting this aside temporarily, but I'll find the time later to pick it up. Next time, likely this summer, I'll have my iPad and a notebook(the kind with paper in it) to help me master the terminology.

This book is far too brightly colored for me to let it win. Redemption shall be mine!

My next reading venture shall be Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature by Brian Switek( I opted for the Kindle edition to save a little money and to see how well the book's imagery displays in this format. This is more of a pleasure read for me, but I hope to learn something that will be applicable as my venture continues.

Since I plan to revisit the works I've mentioned above, I'll probably write more thorough reviews as I finish reading them again. If I'm smart, I'll actually take notes this time instead of just trying to remember everything. Also, if anyone is interested, Brian Switek and Thomas Holtz are both on Twitter, @Laelaps and @TomHoltzPaleo respectively. Until next time, thanks for reading!

Who I Am and Why I'm Blogging

Hello, everybody, and welcome to my blog. I figured my first entry into this venture should be introductory, as my future writings would probably lack context otherwise. I'm currently enrolled in the Construction Engineering program at Montana State University-Bozeman and have another year or so before I graduate. Before this, I spent over five years in the Air Force working with munitions. As both of these paths were essentially chosen for me by the government, I've decided to wander off and finally learn about something that actually interests me.

I found as much of the set as I could online last year. Abebooks is an awesome resource for used books.

I first became interested in dinosaurs at the age of five when I asked my mother to order a series of books from Rourke Publishing(see above). I had already taught myself how to read, and these books were great for fine-tuning the skill. My exposure from that time forward was rather limited. As an eight-year-old Cub Scout, I made my first visit to the Museum of the Rockies and was awestruck by the dinosaur collection. My mother sent me with six dollars to spend and I used it all on a coffee mug I have to this day.

My dad broke the handle off about 17 years ago. I've still got the pieces and it's still awesome.

The following year, my fourth-grade class took a field trip to the museum as part of our unit on dinosaurs. This trip wasn't as fun, as the group I traveled with was substantially larger. This was my last visit to see the dinosaurs until the fall of 2011 when it was required for a geology course. Given the proximity of my hometown of Big Timber, Montana to the museum and multiple dig sites, I am somewhat surprised that the schools wouldn't do more to utilize these resources. Due to the absence of educational offerings in the subject, my dinonerdity was forced into hibernation.

The aforementioned geology class awakened my affection for dinosaurs in a big way. I've started buying whatever books I can find and reading them when I can, I've visited the museum multiple times in the past year, and I keep up with the latest in paleontology news via Twitter. This blog is the next step in my process. Since my education is self regulated, I felt that keeping a journal of my progress would help keep me on track. I don't know how much I can learn about dinosaurs and paleontology, but as I told Andrew Farke recently...

I look forward to continuing in my efforts to expand my dinosaur knowledge base and will enjoy this opportunity to share in my learnings. I suspect my entries will evolve over time, and I'm hopeful that I'll be able to pass on some of my personal discoveries.

P.S. In case anyone is wondering, I read Jurassic Park when I was nine, months before the movie was in theaters. For this reason, the movie was a disappointment. It was still a wonderful experience, but the book had so much more to offer.