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.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The hills are shadows

One of the reasons I became a speculative fiction novelist is because I love to think about how the world would be if the rules were different.  What if we could pick up from inanimate objects the emotional impressions of the last person who held them?  What if time travel into the past were possible?  What if the force of people's belief caused mythological creatures to come to life?

The difficulty is that this dreaminess about altering the laws of the universe runs headlong into my desire to understand what the actual rules are, and which ultimately led me to dedicate my life to science.  After an unfortunate time in my teenage years when I worked really, really hard to convince myself that all the weird paranormal shit I'd immersed myself in was the truth, I was forced by the modicum of intellectual honesty I had back then to admit that the evidence for all of it was nil, and to give the whole thing up as a bad job.

So I ended up teaching science and critical thinking, and simultaneously writing paranormal fiction.  Seemed like a good compromise.

But this push to explore the fringes still shows up.  I'm most attracted to the areas of science that are strange and counterintuitive.  Regular readers of Skeptophilia will attest to this, given my near obsession with things like quantum physics and the behavior of black holes.  And there's one other realm of science that allows me to do what journalist Kathryn Schulz calls "seeing the world as it isn't" -- and that's paleontology.

Because after all, things in the distant past were very, very different than they are now.  We're so used to looking around us and seeing The World As It Is that we don't often consider that this brief point in time is part of a continuum of geological and biological change, and is framed on both sides -- past and future -- by worlds that were and will be wildly different from the one we live in.

As an example, consider the paper published last week in the journal ZooKeys, which is about the fauna of the Sahara.  Immediately I said that name, I'm guessing you pictured sand dunes, perfectly clear blue skies, no plant life (maybe a palm tree or two, if there was an oasis in your imagination), and perhaps a camel or a white-robed Bedouin.

Turn the chronometer back a hundred million years, though, and you wouldn't even know it was the same place.

At that point, the Sahara was a tropical forest, with a huge bay of the Tethys Ocean (the remnant of which we now call the Indian Ocean) right in the middle.  The Atlantic Ocean had only recently opened up, and western Africa was separated from South America by a narrow strait.  What is now an unbroken swath of desert was a large island in the west, a smaller island in the middle of the central bay, and a big chunk of land to the east that is now the remainder of the continent of Africa.

A map of the continents during the late Cretaceous Period [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Mannion, P. D. (2013). "The latitudinal biodiversity gradient through deep time". Trends in Ecology and Evolution 29 (1). DOI:10.1016/j.tree.2013.09.012., LateCretaceousMap, CC BY-SA 3.0]

But that just scratches the surface.  The paper I referenced above, "Geology and Paleontology of the Upper Cretaceous Kem Kem Group of Eastern Morocco," by a team led by Nizar Ibrahim of the University of Detroit, describes the fossil finds in the Kem Kem Group, a dazzlingly rich fossil bed that is only now beginning to be investigated thoroughly.

What this fossil bed shows us is a world that's not only drastically different from how we picture the Sahara today, it's drastically different from anything currently on Earth.  "This was arguably the most dangerous place in the history of planet Earth," Ibrahim said in an interview in Science Daily, "a place where a human time-traveller would not last very long."

Such a time-traveller, in their short remaining life expectancy, would meet up with such beasts as Carcharodontosaurus -- the name means "jagged-toothed lizard" -- which averaged eight meters from tip to tail, just shy of the length of an average school bus.  Its signature teeth were twenty centimeters long and serrated like steak knives.  There were twenty-meter-long crocodilians such as Aegisuchus, which were big enough to turn your average modern saltwater crocodile into saltwater taffy.  There was the fifteen-meter-long, twenty-ton Spinosaurus, another carnivore.  The skies were no safer -- there was a variety of pterodactyloids, including the flying hunter Apatorhamphus, which had a long, needle-toothed snout and a wingspan of five meters.

And that's just a sampler.

"Many of the predators were relying on an abundant supply of fish," said study co-author Professor David Martill from the University of Portsmouth.  "This place was filled with absolutely enormous fish, including giant coelacanths and lungfish.  The coelacanth, for example, is probably four or even five times larger than today's coelacanth [which averages two meters in length].  There is an enormous freshwater saw shark called Onchopristis with the most fearsome of rostral teeth, they are like barbed daggers, but beautifully shiny."

So if you went for a swim, at least you'd have something pretty to look at while you were being messily devoured.

But the vagaries of plate tectonics and climate eventually widened the Atlantic and closed off the bay in the mid-Sahara, and the place started to dry out.  It was green for a lot longer than you'd think, however.  There's evidence that as little as seven thousand years ago, the Sahara got a great deal more rain and was much more verdant than it is today, but a shift in the path of the African monsoon turned off the tap and converted the whole area into a vast, mostly-uninhabitable desert.

I'd like to close with the beautiful and poignant words Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote in his poem "In Memoriam."  I've quoted them here before, but they are so apposite there's really no fitter way to end.  Read this, and think about the Sahara -- and what your own homeland might look like in a hundred million years' time.
There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O Earth, what changes hast thou seen?
There where the long road roars has been
The stillness of the central sea.
The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands,
They melt like mists, the solid lands,
Like clouds, they shape themselves, and go.

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is an important read for any of you who, like me, (1) like running, cycling, and weight lifting, and (2) have had repeated injuries.

Christie Aschwanden's new book Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery goes through all the recommendations -- good and bad, sensible and bizarre -- that world-class athletes have made to help us less-elite types recover from the injuries we incur.  As you might expect, some of them work, and some of them are worse than useless -- and Aschwanden will help you to sort the wheat from the chaff.

The fun part of this is that Aschwanden not only looked at the serious scientific research, she tried some of these "cures" on herself.  You'll find out the results, described in detail brought to life by her lucid writing, and maybe it'll help you find some good ways of handling your own aches and pains -- and avoid the ones that are worthless.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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