All Yesterdays

Here’s a fun book that may not be in your library, since it seems hard to get a hold of: All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals by John Conway, C.M. Kosemen, and Darren Naish.

In the brief introduction, the authors argue that the lack of soft tissue found along with skeletal fossils leads illustrators to depict the exteriors of animals as following closely along the bone structure. But, they note, the skeletons of living animals are “effectively invisible” because they are thickly surrounded by muscle, fat, hides, and hair or feathers.

The skeletons of modern birds– owls and parrots, for example– have long, slender neck skeletons, but overlying skin and thick feather coverings obscure these entirely.

So they present their artwork that follows anatomically faithful to the skeleton and then overlaid with speculation about the soft tissues and behavior (just how did male stegosaurus mount females for mating with all the back armor?). And, in a bit of professional self-criticism, the last section of the book includes drawings of living animals as if only partial skeleton fossils were known, showing just how far off our speculation about dinosaurs might be, illustrating two menacing dragon-like swans with their impossibly long necks spearing fish prey “with their long, scythe-like forelimbs.”

The light touch is what makes it an enjoyable, short book to peruse.

The Violinist’s Thumb

I got about halfway through The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean before the library asked for it back (and I’m happy to give it up). It’s a book about genetics, and by book I mean a loosely connected bunch of interesting anecdotes about genetics. The anecdotes are footnoted with other anecdotal digressions in the back of the book, at least one of which refers to the author’s website for further digressions. Good grief. Perhaps books should be written for reasons other than to show off the author’s knowledge of a topic.

For all of the book’s colorful stories I had a lot of trouble getting through it. The author writes with a forced informal style so loaded with slang and obscure references as to arrest the flow of the narrative. I wonder how English readers outside the United States would ever understand it.


Higgs boson

My grasp of Newtonian physics is okay, and with concentration I can understand relativity. I do not understand quantum physics at all. I have trouble believing that something so fundamental to our existence is so complicated that only a few people on earth can understand it. So I’m not excited about the discovery of the Higgs boson.

I keep thinking about another important discovery. Columbus set out to find a westward sea passage to India and, by golly, he found it. Except that he really found the Americas, though he never stopped believing it was Asia. So I feel like the discovery of the Higgs boson was a bit inevitable: the physicists at CERN set out to find it, and of course they did. Except that it’s not yet for sure, and the uncertainty is pretty large. I hope the physicists aren’t as savage as Columbus, and that they’ll admit if the Higgs boson isn’t all it’s expected to be.

As usual I suspect the hyperbole is fault of the news media which regularly throws around the term “God particle” to describe the Higgs boson. If it’s anything like a supreme being, the Higgs will create more questions than it answers.

Edmond Halley

This month’s National Geographic Magazine and this week’s The Economist each have an article about Edmond Halley, respectively about his financing of Isaac Newton’s physics treatise and his method for calculating the Earth’s distance from the sun. In both articles he is referred to as “Edmond Halley, of comet fame.” Based on his contributions to science, as described in these magazines, we probably ought to not need the “of comet fame” qualifier.