Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Branches on the Tree of Life

Sometimes I think I spend too much time railing against specious, unscientific thinking, and not enough time celebrating the wonderful discoveries humanity has made through science.

It's amazing, when you think about it, how our lives have changed in the past fifty years.  When I was little, there were not only no personal computers, there were no pocket calculators.  Many of us still had slide rules.  There were no CDs, only vinyl records and cassette tapes.  Most kitchens didn't have microwave ovens.  Phones had rotary dials, and you got really pissed off if the person you were calling had lots of 9s in his telephone number because it took so long for the dial to spin back from a 9.  Our television was black-and-white, got four channels, and to make the reception better you wrapped the antenna in aluminum foil.

Seems pretty quaint, doesn't it?  Our lives today would seem like The Jetsons to a typical adult in the 1960s.

But the pragmatic stuff isn't all there is, and I would contend that it's not even the most important part of what science does.  There's a broadening of vision, and an increased sense of wonder and beauty, that comes from understanding the intricacies of the workings of the universe.  My life is immeasurably enriched by having an idea of the basics of physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, geology.  Science's capacity to make us stand back and say, "That is so cool!" is, to me, one of its most important functions.  All practicality aside, it's science's ability to rock us back on our heels, to take us out of the petty world of squabbling celebrities and fractious politics, that is its greatest accomplishment.

Toward that end, I'm going to throw out there two stories from just the past couple of days that had that "Wow!" factor for me.  Both come from my field, biology.  See if you have the same reaction I did -- if, just for a moment, it gave you a glimpse into the awe-inspiring nature of... Nature.

First, we have a paleontological discovery from Argentina of a newly-named species of dinosaur called... Dreadnoughtus.  I kid you not.  And when you hear about this beast, you'll see that the name is apt.  Dreadnoughtus was a titanosaur, a relative of the huge Brachiosaurus and huger Argentinosaurus, but Dreadnoughtus put both of these species to shame, size-wise.  The familiar Brachiosaurus, often mentioned when the subject of enormous land animals comes up, topped the scale at an estimated 75,000 pounds.

Dreadnoughtus was three times heavier.

The specimen from Argentina included a left thigh bone six feet long, and neck vertebra three feet across.  That's one spinal bone, folks.  This dinosaur was an estimated 85 feet long, and weighed more than a fully-loaded Boeing 737-900.

That, my friends, is a bigass dinosaur.

Of course, this prompts our imagination to try to picture what this thing must have been like when it was alive.  "(Dreadnoughtus was) probably a pretty surly beast,” the leader of the study team, Dr. Kenneth Lacovara of Drexel University, said.  "I wouldn’t want to get anywhere near this guy.  If he leaned against you, you’re dead."

Then we have a paper on an animal collected from deep marine regions off the coast of Tasmania.  Called Dendrogramma, this animal looks a little like a translucent mushroom, only the stalk ends in a mouth.  The digestive tract runs up the stalk, repeatedly bifurcating as it goes, and branches out into the "cap."

Why is this interesting?  Because thus far, Dendrogramma has defied classification.  It seems likely that Dendrogramma represents a whole new phylum of Kingdom Animalia -- making it further removed from all other animal species than we are from jellyfish.

Dendrogramma, Phylum incertae sedis [image courtesy of Just, Kristensen, and Olesen, and PLOS-One]

That such an animal can still frustrate taxonomists, given all of our understanding of evolutionary genetics, taxonomy, and cladistics, is just an indication of how much more there is out there to learn.  If Dendrogramma does turn out, upon analysis, to be the earliest branch of the animal kingdom, "(It will) completely reshape the tree of life, and even our understanding of how animals evolved, how neurosystems evolved, how different tissues evolved," said Leonid Moroz, neurobiologist at the University of Florida's Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine.  "It can rewrite whole textbooks in zoology."

I find the whole thing tremendously exciting.  This, really, is the cutting edge of science, illustrating Neil deGrasse Tyson's statement "Scientists have to be comfortable with ignorance, because we live at the boundary between what is known and unknown in the universe...  Journalists write articles about science and they always begin, 'Scientists now have to go back to the drawing board!'  As if we're sitting up in our offices, masters of the universe, and then go, 'Oops!  Somebody discovered something!'  No, we're always at the drawing board.  If you're not at the drawing board, you're not making discoveries.  You're not doing science."

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