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October 9, 2008

a namesake of sorts

A cranium of Protoceratops andrewsi, collected by the infamous Roy Chapman Andrews during his Mongolian adventure. He went seeking human origins, and instead came back with some of the first evidence of dinosaur nesting behavior.

You might notice something familiar in his name, but look to something even more familiar in his hat. This notorious adventurer, explorer, scientist, soldier, spy, and some would say grave-robber and thief of rare antiquities was one of the inspirations for another adventurer in a beaten fedora hat. You can either read of his excellent adventures in his own hand above, or try Charles Gallenkamp and Mike Novacek's biography of the man, Dragon Hunter.

burgessia etcetera

The Burgess shale occupies a unique location in paleontological history, and has played a significant role in both posing and answering questions for evolutionary biologists. It represents a small snapshot of life on the edge of a coastal shelf in Cambrian seas. Its discovery by Charles Walcott in the early 1900s was significant in that it was one of the first sites to yield up a large number of difficult-to-preserve soft-bodied organisms from a period when life was making the transition from simple to complex multicellular organisms. It has been referred to as a period of "biological experimentation", as evolution tossed up a number of innovative body plans, not all of which were adopted. Many of the critters uncovered are... weird... for lack of a better description. They are difficult to place within context of modern taxonomic groupings, as they are either "failed experiments" that went extinct, or their ancestors are so derived that it is almost impossible to detect the familial relationships.

Of course, many of the hypotheses set forth by the original site have now been supported or expanded by additional finds in the Chengjiang formation in China - and elsewhere around the world, but the wonder of remains are still being excavated from the original Global Heritage site that inspired so much thought.

These two creatures have wandered quite a distance from home to live in the muséum national d’Histoire naturelle:


This is Burgessia, a small and early crustacean from the eponymous shale. They probably lived a life similar to brine shrimp or krill, swimming and filter-feeding in the open ocean.

This is Naraoia, an early soft trilobite. I sometimes wish that these had not gone extinct, as I would like to try eating them. On the other hand, few folks eat horseshoe crabs, so...

It is sad to note the extensive water damage on both of the cards labeling these important fossils. All of these valuable fossils were stored in simple and poorly lit plexiglass cases, and not all of them were labeled. There were no educational or supplemental materials to really place the organisms in their evolutionary or historical context. They were simply objects to be appreciated for their natural beauty, and it was sad to see such an amazing resource callously gathering dust in an empty display case. Even my own personal collection of odds and ends from the natural world is better organized and placed in a more meaningful context.

Maybe I'll open my own museum some day.

paleontology and comparative anatomy

Of course, I ended up at the gallery of paleontology and anatomy. I suppose it says something about my person when I have but a day to explore all of Paris, and the two major sites that I visit are a library and a museum of natural history.

The museum itself is something of a wonder. It has over four hundred years of collections, brought together and studied by some of the best scientists that the world has to offer. These are amazing and historic samples in a sturdy building designed to last for the ages. They are also poorly labeled and displayed behind scratched plexiglass. The roof leaks, and samples and displays all suffer from water damage. This approach pales when compared to the educational presentation of even a modest American museum of natural history.

I suppose my father puts it best:

" As I often preach in my geology lectures, a rock is no more exciting than a page in a book. It's the story that matters, and the challenge for a museum is to tell the story (as well as warehouse data).

We've probably told you this before, but in 1976 we visited the Cairo Museum of Antiquities. It was like the government warehouse scene at the end of the original Indiana Jones -- an immensity of stuff, dimly lit, dust-covered, few labels (fewer in English). There was much of the King Tut material, what you could see of it, and endless mummies and caskets. Years later we saw a a traveling exhibit of Egyptian material including a fraction of the King Tut stuff from Cairo - but viv're la differance! It was a very well-displayed collection that really made an impression. So, there is probably a moral here somewhere, but I will settle for the thought that one good idea - well communicated - is worth more than any old box of rocks."

Emphasis and links are mine.

wandering free, part IV: jardin royal des plantes médicinales

Lamark, I am here!

Poor Lamark always gets a raw deal when it comes to evolution. While he is frequently remembered for his infamous missteps in early evolutionary theory, his theory was the first real testable hypothesis attempting to explain the generational aspects of adaptive speciation. Moreover, he was an excellent taxonomist of invertebrates, and would become the inaugural Chair of Zoology at the muséum national d'histoire naturelle.

Because this is Europe, the museum is still where it was hundreds of years ago, and is in full possession of those centuries worth of collections. I come upon a signpost, which leads to a fork in the road. Perhaps I should find it revealing as to which path I took on the road ahead.

Perhaps I should always follow my heart in such a fashion.

wandering free, part III: déjeuner et parc

I stop to grab a simple lunch in a deli beside a park, and cannot get over the strangely accented spanish that the counter-girl is speaking before I remember where I am. My baguette (which did in fact come with a bag) with ham and gruyere was succinctly tasty, but I cannot get over how much the French love to slather their sandwiches with salted butter as a condiment. I also cannot get over how expensive food is here. It isn't just the appalling dollar to euro conversion that I am fighting - food is just more expensive.

Whatever.

I am enjoying myself, and people-watch in the park. I will discover that the French are remarkably thin, especially given how well they eat. These are a healthy people, running with their dogs in the park over lunch.

wandering free, part II: fleuve Seine et monde

I have several hours to kill in Paris before my friends get off of work and can join me in frivolity, and so of course while wandering down the Seine, I eventually wind up in a library. I am ever slave to the written word, even if it is not in my own tongue. I figure that even if I am on vacation, I can afford to spend some time looking through the entomological section of the library for a French perspective on les thysanoptères. This rapidly proves to be a moderately amusing exercise in futility: thrips are no more popular in French than they are in English. Out of thousands of pages dedicated to les insectes, I can find perhaps two pages on thrips. My spanish is good enough to make a rough translation of what I read, and it seems that the same problems plague researchers in France as elsewhere: thrips may be incredibly diverse and a significant crop pest, but they're just too damn small to work with.

The rest of the library is of course, more thrilling. This is a building that was constructed around a small forest, and which is flanked on its sides by apartment-building sized towers, all full of books. They have resources in many different languages, and I run through the science section, stopping here and there to flip through a volume on DNA or paleontology. More wonderful is their display of the truly impressive Coronelli globes. This pair of two-ton globes were originally constructed for Louis XIV, the "Sun King". At this, my inner musketeer is awakened, and my ongoing love-affair with globalization continues. They were objects of science as much as they were objects of art, and they expressed the Sun King's power in a very explicit and clear fashion.

I would have taken more photos, but flash photography was forbidden in order to protect the pigments on the star and earth globes. I respect the preservation of such art and science, but one of these days I am going to have to remember to bring a tripod for long exposures in low-light conditions.

by Toutatis!

Hey - an early childhood experience in globalization!

Paris names her streets after her favorite citizens, as well as for some "honorary citizens"; famous persons the world over who might once have called the artistic, intellectual, and democratic spirit of France a home. Native son René Goscinny is no exception, and this street that bears his name also features an additional piece of flair quoting one of his favorite creations.

Food is not the only currency for world peace - so is humor. I stumbled upon Asterix during my first weeks in Singapore, and found myself introduced to a world of snarky puns, the occasional political or moral commentary, magic potions, and goofy (but often positive) stereotypes tied to a puffed-up sense of nationalist pride. It was a time when the invading roman legionnaires lived in terror of being assigned to a small corner of occupied Gaul, and when the only thing those selfsame Gauls might fear was the sky falling while they were abed. Those comic books have since been translated into hundreds of languages, and even made into several movies and video games. I have learned that whoever performed the translations into other languages did so with much care, and managed to preserve much of the intent behind the laughter to be found in the original French. Like some other forms of media, they either followed or preceded me around the world, and they have always been there ever since: a source of home for the homeless, no matter what language they are currently written in.

wandering free, part I: train et diversité

And now I am lost in Paris proper.

Charles De Gaulle International Airport connects directly to the local metro rail. It was here that I first experienced a difficulty that I would advise all future travelers to Paris to be aware of: many of the metro rail stations accept only coins at the ticket-vending machines, and if you have only paper currency, your life may be made difficult and entertaining.

It was also here that I experienced a small bit of cognitive dissonance as I walked into the station. The first music to come on the radio was "Eye of the Tiger", and it was rapidly followed by Madonna's "Material Girl". I was uncertain whether perhaps when I had travelled in space, if I had not also perhaps travelled in time. Fortunately the train arrived in time to prevent a complete flashback to a prior era.

It was there on the train that Paris began to present its face as a major cosmopolitan city, and showed itself to be culturally diverse as well as relatively friendly. As I sat reviewing my maps, a nice old Algerian lady asked me if I was American (is it really that obvious?), and offered to help me find my way to my destination. I thanked her for her help, and immediately realized how terrible my French was. My obvious spanish ("you speak like an Italian!") accent and linguistic reference frame would throw me mentally off course and bedevil me throughout my journey. As we travelled from the airport into the city proper, the city woke up and the morning commuters on their way to work and school filled the train. I marveled as all the nations of the world began to board and babble in their native tongues. France was once an imperial power, with colonies scattered the world over - and it is still an important player in matters of world policy and finance. That broad international reach was well reflected as color and diversity filled the train and my soul.

In an odd way, I find being alone in a sea of foreigners vaguely comforting. Not only does it remind me of my youth, but I suspect that we are all islands wandering alone together. I like to believe that it is only through an appreciation for the polyglot that we will find successful answers in a globalizing world. Everyone has their strengths and their weaknesses, and all of them have a different approach and outlook on the way we process life.

I find such novel and different approaches refreshing and exciting, even when I disagree with them. If nothing else, it certainly provides many opportunities for feasting well at a number of different ethnic restaurants. I have also always believed in world peace through superior dining.

Un Américain à Paris

I am in Paris.

I think.

Time ceases to have any real meaning in airports, especially once you start to pass through timezones. The only real numbers that matter are the local times at endpoints and for your connecting flights. The time in between is a blur of fitful sleep, clattering beverage carts, and the occasional word to your fellow traveller.

But I stand at an endpoint.

I am in Paris.

Or at least I will be as soon as I process myself through customs, and receive the first visa stamp in my new passport. I look forward to filling it with many more, as my passports of older days once were. In the meantime, as Oscar Wilde is reputed to have once stated, "I have nothing to declare, except my genius."

October 8, 2008

flying free for a while

By the time you read this, I should be well underway in my voyage to Paris. At this point, I am probably winging my way over the Northeastern seaboard. In the meantime, I present: my gate at Miami International.

MIA has always seemed a strange and magical place. As Miami is the capital of South America, it was inevitable that all of the expatriates and transnational elites would end up passing through on their way to their final destination in the southern hemisphere. We would always run into someone from somewhen else in our extended expatriate experience, sometimes years after we had seen or spoken to them last. Such communications always ended with a chuckle and the suggestion that we "meet here again next summer".

October 7, 2008

semper ex patria

Tomorrow morning I leave for France and a good friend's wedding at an excruciatingly early hour. I have been preparing for this voyage by immersing myself in the culture of France. Given my limited circumstances, my explorations have mostly been through the medium of film.

I began my journey with the historic Battle of Algiers, which showcases France's difficult imperialist past, and then followed it with Caché, suggesting that their present is still complicated by such matters. These somber tones were chased away by the far more surreal fantasy offered by the City of Lost Children. I'm not quite sure what this film says about French culture as a whole, except to note that Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a certifiable genius. I suppose that I will finish off with Brotherhood of the Wolf, which can only serve to convince me that the current French aristocracy is ruled by a secret cabal of werewolves.