When I was a kid, I was so into dinosaurs that I wanted to be a paleontologist. Eventually, astronomy won out, but it was touch-and-go there for a while (my compromise: study giant impacts that wiped out the dinosaurs).
When I was that age, my dad used to make tape recordings and send them to relatives instead of written letters, so that family members could hear the voices of the kids. I remember quite specifically one day picking a description about the ankylosaur for my part of the "letter". I talked about its clubbed tail, and how it used that weapon to fend off ravenous carnivores.
So back when I was 5 I would’ve loved to have had a book like my friend Daniel Loxton’s new work, Ankylosaur Attack. It’s a great, lavishly-illustrated hardcover for kids about the day in the life of a young dinosaur: feeding, watching pterosaurs, meeting up with other ankylosaurs, and then, of course, the T. Rex attack!
Daniel is an artist, so the book is illustrated with amazing photo-realistic images of the creatures, which I’m sure will get any dinosaur-enthusiast kid’s heart pumping. The story itself is based on current thinking in paleontological circles about dinosaur behavior, and it presents dinosaurs not as giant monsters but as inhabitants of the same world in which we live, just way back in the past.
Daniel’s last book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, was fantastic, so I’m not surprised this one is so good, too.
It’s available on Amazon.com of course, and would make a great present for the holidays coming up. Thanksgiving is a traditional family get-together time in the US, so I’m sure there are kids who would love to get a copy of this and read it with the grandparents. Just a hint there.
So I finally watched the pilot episodes of the new Fox scifi drama "Terra Nova" (it airs Mondays at 8:00 p.m. ET). I found it watchable, with some potential, and like every other TV show in existence (except "Firefly") it had some things I liked and some I didn’t. I got email about it due to a couple of lines in the pilot, which I’ll get to in a sec. First, a quick overview.
Gotta get back in time
The idea behind the show (no real spoilers here, since this is all explained in the first minute of the program) is that by the year 2149, the Earth is dying. Pollution, global warming, and so on have made the planet nearly uninhabitable. People need rebreathers just to go outside, and many scenes show huge chimneys pumping smoke into the air just to hammer home that point. Population control is mandatory; having more than two kids is an invitation for the police to come.
The show centers on a family – cop father, brilliant doctor mother, rebellious teenage son, science whiz-kid teenage daughter, and their youngest, a girl. And yeah, if you count three kids, good for you! That drives part of the plot in Part 1 of the show, so I won’t spoil it.
The big plot device in the show is that a fracture in time is discovered — how and why are not disclosed, perhaps to be revealed in a later episode — that goes to 85 million years in the past. People are being sent back in time to populate the still-clean planet, save humanity, fight dinosaurs, and so on.
I’ll note that I like how the time travel was handled. When we join the story, time travel has already been around a while — this family is sent back as part of the tenth wave of colonists — so the writers didn’t have to spend a lot of time talking about how it was done. It just is. Also, the writers circumvented the inevitable fan rage with a short expository scene stating how this isn’t really our past; the time line has split, so it doesn’t matter if you step on a butterfly or eat an entire herd of dinosaurs. It won’t change the future. That made me smile. Score one (pre-emptively) for the writers.
Of course, the show tried to distance itself from "Jurassic Park", and did so by having the first look at the dinosaurs be a herd of brachiosaurs, and then having the main characters in souped-up jeeps getting chased by a carnivorous velociraptor/T-Rex-like animal.
Um, yeah. Oops.
I’m no paleontologist, and I like watching dinosaurs with big sharp teeth eat a person as much as the next guy, so that part was fine. But then they went a little bit out of their way to add some astronomy, and kinda blew it. So I have to jump in here a bit.
What follows is me nitpicking the science of a couple of lines of dialogue. I don’t do this to be petty — I gave up on that in my reviews a long time ago — but just to use these lines to point out the real science. Any snarking is incidental.
In September 2011, I was honored to be on the speaker roster for TEDxBoulder, which is a local though independently-run version of the much-lauded TED talks. My talk was about saving the Earth from asteroid impacts, something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about.
The talk is online, and I’ve included it here:
The "We have a space program" line is from science fiction author Larry Niven, so I can’t take credit for it, though I modified it to add the "we can vote" bit. Also, this was the biggest audience I’ve ever spoken to, and it was a great crowd. I was almost last on the roster, but the audience was attentive and clearly enjoying themselves. It was a really fun, energizing, and mind-expanding evening.
The other talks that night are being put online as well. If you ever get a chance to attend a local TEDx conference, you should.
Is this the greatest t-shirt idea ever thunk up? Why yes. Yes, it is.
And will I be getting one? Duh.
A giant impact from an asteroid or comet can ruin your whole day. Or year. Or, if you’re a dinosaur, your existence.
So astronomers do what they can to understand this menace from space. We look for rocks on orbits that intersect ours, we think about ways of moving them out of the way should we find one, and we also think about the record we do have of past impacts to see what we can learn from them.
There are about 180 impact craters known on our planet, ranging from tens of millennia in age to billions of years. They also vary in size from a few kilometers across to monsters so big they can only be detected from space. Sometimes it’s hard to measure their size (they can have multiple concentric rings, or be underground — covered up due to extreme age — making definite sizes hard to figure out) or hard to get their age. But we do have some statistics on them, and there have been many studies about them.
A big question is: are impacts periodic? That is, do they happen with some repeating period? If so, then there must be some astrophysical cause: a giant planet in the outer solar system, for example, that shakes loose comets every 50 million years, or the Sun passing near another star. This has been studied, and all kinds of periods have been found in the data. I’ve always been a little skeptical of them, since the data are sparse. And now it looks like my thoughts are being supported: a new study finds no such pattern in the ages of craters, and concludes all the periods found previously are probably due to errors in the analyses.
Speaking of which, how do we know hemorrhoids didn’t kill the dinosaurs?
"Get Fuzzy" has some thoughts on the reality of a giant magic rocks killing off creatures we can still clearly see in movies.
Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Kenneth Brody.
Thanks to the website Geekologie, I learned that there is a town called Dinosaur in Colorado! It sounds like a fun place. Who wouldn’t want to live on Ceratosaurus Circle or Diploducus Drive? Too bad it’s 500 km away from my house. But given that it’s in Colorado, I wonder if any of those streets are older than 6000 years?