Wednesday, September 28, 2011

White (and pink and black) Washing the Past

Back in 1963, the artist Louis Paul Jonas was contracted by Sinclair Oil Company to create a set of life-size dinosaur sculptures that Sinclair displayed in "Dinoland" at the 1964-65 New York City World's Fair. His restorations were based on the best science of the day. The sculptures were painted in the mostly muted green hues that were then considered the most plausible colors for "terrible lizards" until the "dinosaur renaissance" that started in the late sixties. The stegosaurus from the Sinclair Dinosaur Tour collection found its way to Dinosaur National Monument, and it stood next to the Quarry Visitor's Center for half a century. The Dinosaur National Monument Quarry Visitor Center blog has a post showing what has happened to the sculpture along with some of its history. Here's the original sculpture's color scheme is contrasted against the new harlequin repaint below:

History vs. Paleo Hipster
I maintain that it's no more appropriate to repaint the historic sculpture Louis Paul Jonas created than it would be to have artists change the colors of dinosaurs in the murals of Charles R. Knight that grace walls in Chicago's Field Museum. The new color scheme doesn't make the stegosaurus up-to-date, and in my opinion it defaces an historic work of art as well as obscuring the history of paleontology. What would be a respectful and educational way to display the Jonas' stegosaurus? Restore the original paint scheme and put it next to a fully modern reconstruction. Install a placard that explains that paleontology has progressed since the days of green tail-dragging interpretations of dinosaurs, and that today they're interpreted as more dynamic and (perhaps) more colorful creatures. And have the humility to say that a modern reconstruction may well be made obsolete as new paleontological discoveries further revise our views. Inevitably our reconstructions will forever be the product of imagination working from our best understanding and evidence. Assuming that there's no budget for the U.S. Park Service to obtain a modern reconstruction sculpture, an economical interpretive plaque could include modern illustrations that would contrast with the historic sculpture.

Some of the other Sinclair dinosaurs ended up in Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, Texas. There's a placard at the park describing the process Jonas used to sculpt, scale, and build the fiberglass dinosaurs. The Texas park displays the sculptures in their original color scheme and interpretive plaques provide the modern perspective. I hope that the Texas Sinclair dinosaurs continue unmolested by revisionist color schemes. Paleontology and its public displays have a history that's important to conserve. It's a great story that underscores how science is a dynamic, often contentious process.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Visualizing and Exploring Deep Time or "Big History"

Many folks with paleo interests will be familiar with Pan Terra's Correlated History of Earth and Correlated History of Matter laminated charts. These charts pack an amazing amount of deep time information into a relatively small space (28" x 36"). And there's a map-folded Correlated History of the Universe that has both of the aforementioned charts printed on opposite sides. I've spent considerable time trying to get a visceral feeling for the correlated events in deep time, particularly on the Correlated History of Earth chart. Columns for plate tectonics, the geologic timeline, known and suspected meteor impact events, orogenies, volcanic, events, and evolution timelines major phyla are packed into this chart with admirable clarity. You can purchase these charts from the publisher and also from several online stores.

Pan Terra's Correlated History of Earth

As impressive the Pan Terra charts are, there's a practical limit on how much information a printed chart can include. And since the geologic timeline isn't to scale, that's a big limitation when you're trying to build a mental model of deep time. I was really happy to find an amazing interactive timeline that provides a visual timeline of the universe with correlated information that only networked computer and display technology can offer. It's called ChronoZoom by Walter Alvarez and Roland Saekow, as well as their team of developers. It's an amazing free (version 1.0) resource developed in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science at U.C. Berkeley within a new interdisciplinary field called "Big History" (I think "Deep Time" is more poetic and sounds less anthropocentric). The concept reminds me of Gigapan photo images, but instead of zooming in on an extremely detailed photo the application lets you zoom into detailed timelines. Below is a embed of a 22 minute video narrated by Professor Alvarez. It's a really interesting presentation that's both an overview of deep time evolution and a good way to get a feel for the power of the ChronoZoom tool.

ChronoZoom: Interactive timescales of Cosmos, Earth, Life, Humanity

I've just started exploring the first generation ChronoZoom application, which runs using Silverlight as a web app. Doubleclick to zoom in, shift-click to zoom out, and click-drag to move around the timeline. Right now, the application is just a proof of concept with only a hint of the exploration power the tool could provide. I can see huge potential for this tool and really hope it catches the imagination of scientists working in many disciplines.