Thursday, 21 March 2013

The Prep Room

By now you will have gathered by the somewhat irregularity of my posts that I am a little busy right now. There are so many things on the go at the moment that it has been a case of having to prioritise what needs to be done first and, unfortunately, the blog suffers as a result but I hope this will eventually sort itself out and I will be able to blog regularly again real soon.
However, one task that I have been busy with is the setup of a preparation room that is slowly beginning to take shape. This is not a large laboratory by any means but, when it is finished, will provide a good quality work station for one technician and will provide enough room and facilities accordingly.
This facility has been designed to work on material already extracted from their jackets or indeed those that are in smaller, more manageable jackets that can be satisfactorily handled by one technician. As a result the space needed to extract specimens out of a jacket is small in comparison to those in the larger facilities that may sometime deal with extremely large and heavy blocks. I am currently looking at a mobile bench arrangement that needs to be strong and will probably be a form of scissor lifting table which will be of  benefit to both  the technician  and the specimen but,  in truth, this should be seldom required.
The workspace itself is spacious and well set out. Because of the nature of the specimens that will be prepared the technician will be able to use the one space for the majority of the preparation. There is room for a microscope and there will be a flat screen mounted on one side to stream images which will be incredibly useful. If you are considering a similar set up then remember to provide the screen with appropriate protection since one stray piece of matrix can cause substantial damage which most labs can ill afford!
Adequate ventilation and extraction is provided and the prep room is remarkably temperature stable and humidity virtually non-existent. There is ample space provided for a variety of tools close to hand. A separate space is provided for the various glues and consolidants but this too is close to the operative and easily accessible.
At SVP last year Greg Brown, of the University of Nebraska State Museum, discussed the various merits of different lighting for microvertebrate preparation and this too is being looked at. As well as conventional illumination, we will be experimenting with LED’s (which have received mixed reaction) and will definitely be using polarised lighting in one form or another.  Unfortunately, the room has no windows or natural light which is a shame since I know from experience that you can often discern detail in this light that can be occasionally missed by other light sources.
Seating is another high priority that has yet to be finalised. It is not enough to simply have an operators chair and believe that is that. So many things need to be considered including ergonomic design, practicality and that it provides adequate support and comfort to the technician. Poor posture needs to be eradicated as much as possible and the correct seat will help do this. Ensuring regular breaks from repetitive operations will benefit any preparator and the technician must be encouraged to manage themselves accordingly. It goes without saying that personal protective equipment (PPE) is available and includes safety glasses and face masks as standard.
Aside from the practical side of things there is also the paperwork side of things to maintain but this will not be situated in the prep room and is located more or less next door where there is a computer, files, records and both camera and video equipment for the entire project.
So all in all this should be a simple but practical preparation set up and will help us be more progressive as we continue our research into our chosen subjects. Despite marine reptiles featuring heavily in preparation there just might be the odd fish and dinosaur from time to time so it will be a good idea to watch this space because there is definitely some very interesting material coming up for prep. 

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Project Daspletosaurus 2013 - Almost There

Just a quick reminder to say that there is still time to chip in with a donation to Dave Hone's research project into possible cannibalism in the tyrannosaurid Daspletosaurus. The  response from the paleocommunity, yet again, has been terrific with just about $200  more needed to reach the target. If you haven't heard about this (where have you been?) then I urge you to head over to the page here , donate and be part of some very cool research.

Well done to everyone who has already contributed - I hope that this will encourage similar projects in the future.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The Perils of New Age Palaeontology

Let me say straight away that this post is in no way intended to offend anybody whatsoever in the palaeontological world! Rather it is just an objective look into how some people’s perception of palaeontologists may lead to an unfortunate stereotypical opinion of science whilst, at the same time, may also be indicative of the odd failing in our community.
I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now which was initially prompted by a comment by Jon Tennant that he had been told by a palaeontologist that bloggers such as ourselves and our other fellow web publishers are unqualified to make any relevant comments regarding the science since, that before you could make a comment, “… have to be an author of a study or you are under qualified”.
Whether this was tongue in cheek or not is neither here nor there but I wondered how prevalent this attitude may be throughout the palaeoworld. A very recent comment by fellow blogger Ian Garafalo, of the Other Branch, that he didn’t “…..really fit in with the rest of the online paleo community” was also suggestive that anybody who did not conform with the norm as established by the general paleo community was somehow disconnected from the larger community as a whole. This may simply be a matter of perception but it may also harbour one or two divisive points that we can and should address.
I like to think that all of us in the paleo community share a common bond and we all want to make a contribution in some form or another. At the bottom end of the scale is the ordinary guy in the street who has a passing interest in palaeontology such as when, perhaps, there is a new dinosaur announced and he wants to know more about the animal, what it was like, what it ate and where  and when it lived.
At the other end of the spectrum are our very best palaeontologists, many of whom are world renowned, and command the respect and admiration of the rest of us. These are the men and women who are as familiar to us as a Hollywood star would be to everybody else – people such as Benson, Brusatte, Horner, Holtz, Currie, Witmer etc. These are at the very top end of the paleo tree.
And in between these two groups are the rest of us – other palaeontologists, the preparators, the avocationists, the bloggers, the students, the museum volunteers, the artists – the list goes on. Each of us, in our own way, make a contribution to our science and, regardless of the size and merit of that contribution, are all therefore equally important.
However, professional palaeontologists are the most important contributing group in our community. It is through them that we get the very latest information that is brought to us through the various journals and conferences and, on occasion, that big story that breaks on a worldwide scale and is brought to us via the various media outlets.  Let’s face it – all of us thirst for the next paper that  bring us that detail we have been  waiting for and, even better than that, when something breaks that many of us did not even know of or had heard about. These are great moments and the buzz in the paleo world when this happens can last for days, sometimes weeks and then the cycle begins again as we wait for the next story to break. 
So our palaeontologists are important and are nearly always busy but, like all of us, they are all human beings and suffer the same trials and tribulations as the rest of us. This is extremely important and something that the rest of us must always consider. They have to deal with every day work and family issues and, as a result, suffer the same failings as the rest of us.
So it should come as no surprise that, on occasion, the busy palaeontologist may be unable or unwilling to talk to us, answer an email or share his data with others. Indeed, with some research, it is essential to maintain an element of discretion and only their fellow workers would be privy to that research.  And they will have bad days – real bad days.
And herein lies the problem in as much that these occasional lapses may be interpreted by Joe Public as a form of elitism. The palaeontologist (in fact any scientist in any discipline)  can be seem as if to be keeping things to him or herself, unwilling to discuss or share unless with their intimates and, to  the layman, this behaviour can be interpreted as disingenuous and unwelcome.      
But is elitism a totally bad thing? In many ways our elite palaeontologists are exactly that because they are the best at what they do. They have spent years of toil and study to get where they are and the academic selection process enables them to progress onward and upward and they are, therefore, selected as elite by achievement.
Having reached this status, the palaeontologist then has a delicate balance to maintain and, on occasion, this may not always appear palatable. They may choose not to disseminate data, can be obstructive and, as we have already heard, perhaps disregard other peoples work or comments because they are not “real” palaeontologists.
Sometimes this attitude may also be directed at their fellow palaeontologists and I actually find this to be more disturbing than actually, for example, being directed at someone like me. Just because you believe or even know that you are right should not give anyone the right to disregard somebody else’s hypothesis because since,  and before you know where you are, splinter groups arise and the harsh spectre of  tribalism raises its ugly head  and, as I have said before,  a couple of factions throwing insults around about each other benefits nobody. Unfortunately this scenario has occurred on occasion and I know of at least two rather high profile cases.
However, as unfortunate these cases are, they are still relatively unusual but when a similar attitude is reflected upon those outside the professional sphere then we have a problem. Why should any reasonable comment or theory be dismissed just because they are not published in an approved journal? And, even worse in some quarters, what if they are published in a non-approved publication?
No matter who you are, you should not be ostracised because you are not a “real” palaeontologist and you should certainly not have your ideas discredited – not because they are wrong – but because that they are published in a blog or in a non-sanctioned journal. Indeed, online publishers face a far greater critical audience and they know, or should know, that when you put your work, opinions and ideas up for public scrutiny that you will attract attention and you should be prepared to accept this criticism. Critique the work yes but do not ignore it or regard it as below status. 
Importantly, interpretation of data from all quarters needs to be fair and as accurate as possible. Unfortunately palaeontology, or indeed any science, is seldom a straight forward affair. In an ideal world we would find our fossils, prepare them, measure and research them and this would enable us to form our hypotheses about them whilst, at the same time, being able to disqualify others – the data supports the hypothesis – simple.
As we are all aware, however, this is seldom the case and the palaeontologist again needs to maintain a delicate balancing act.  In our science, because we are dealing with fossil remains, there are many occasions when a theory can only be formed because of subjectivity and all of us – but all of us – will do this. The trick is not to let any biases or any preconceived ideas influence your decisions. This is never easy since data can be notoriously erroneous and deciding which data is useful and that which is not can make and break a theory. Indeed, testability is crucial.
It is up to the palaeontologist to try and present the facts in a clear and concise way that in no way has had the data bent or twisted to accommodate the hypothesis. This is the very essence of good science because then the palaeontologist is not only understanding his own research but is always questioning himself about it time and time again before he is happy. This is a discipline to be admired since it must take a long long time to develop.
Having said all this I have to say that the vast majority of my experiences within the palaeontological community have been nothing but good at all levels of the science. There has been the odd occasion where I think I may have been a little hard done by, unfairly criticised or ignored but these are extremely few and far between. Indeed, over the years, I use these experiences to learn about how the palaeoworld works and, more importantly, to learn about myself as well as others.
Palaeontology of today is global. We are able to communicate with each other in ways that are unparalleled when compared with the past. Avocationists, amateurs and everybody else are able to communicate with palaeontologists of all levels via the social networks, the blogs and the conferences.  Once we were only able to watch these guys on the occasional TV program or when reading the odd magazine article or book – today we communicate with each other on a surprisingly regular basis.
We know who is in the field and where they are, we get instant notification of new discoveries and the same with new publications. Everything we see and do is disseminated instantly amongst all of us and I, for one, would not want it any other way. Palaeontology of today is fast moving, fluid and ever changing and where we will be in fifty years’ time blows the mind.
So we have to accept that there will be times when things do not quite go as we want, when people do not quite respond in the way we would expect and our friends and colleagues may appear a little short sometimes. This is the price we all pay for today’s instant communication and when you consider how rare these discretions are in the palaeoworld then surely it is a price worth paying.