I don’t know if you are still collecting these, but I wanted to send you a pic of my recent tattoo of a Von Karman vortex street. This is a (reasonably) faithful representation of an image from an actual experiment to produce this phenomenon, from the book An Album of Fluid Motion (hope they don’t sue me!).
I’ve always thought it was a beautiful pattern, and I’m fascinated with how it appears in such diverse contexts in a large range of space and time scales. I work in molecular simulation of fluids, so I don’t quite study Von Karman vortices, but this kind of fluid dynamics is at least tangentially related to my field.
It’s hard to believe that the World Science Festival is now in its fifth year. What started out feeling like an experiment is now a New York institution. I’m looking forward to participating yet again, and hope you’ll be able to join me.
On Friday I’ll be moderating an event called “Illuminating Resilience.” Four experts will discuss how people withstand life’s hardest shocks, and manage to bounce back.
When: Friday, June 1 10 to 11:30 AM
Where: NYU Global Center, Grand Hall. 238 Thompson St, New York, NY 10012. Map
More details and ticket ordering information here.
On Saturday afternoon, The World Science Festival will be holding a free event called, “Meet the Authors: Conversations with Best-Selling Science Writers”
I’ll be kicking things off at 1 pm with a talk about Science Ink. We’ll have temporary tattoos, special guests, and other surprises. And then stick around for other writers, including Lawrence Krauss and E. O. Wilson.
Where: NYU Kimmel Center, Commuter Lounge, 60 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012 (2nd Floor, Room 203) Map
At some of my recent talks, I’ve been running into people who’ve been annoyed that they forgot to bring a book of mine to get signed. You really couldn’t think of a better way to cheer up a writer, and so I feel the need to reciprocate.
So if you’ve gotten a book of mine and want to get it signed, I’ve printed up some bookplates that I can autograph and send to you.
Just to ensure I’m not signing bookplates for alien robots who will take these bookplates to their home planet to…do whatever evil thing alien robots do with bookplates from science writers…please follow these steps:
1. Take your picture with the book.
Optional step 3. For those on Twitter: instead of emailing me your photo, you can upload it to Twitter (mentioning my Twitter name @carlzimmer). Be sure to email me your address, too, so that I know where to send the bookplate.
So far, I’ve got three bookplates–one for Parasite Rex, one for Science Ink (in matching Goth type), and one for Planet of Viruses. (See below). It’s weirdly easy to produce these things, so I’m happy to take requests for my other books.
Please find attached a photo of my Australopithecus tattoo. I’m a medical anthropologist researching the historical relationship between school meals and obesity in children as part of my PhD at Durham University. Obviously this has very little to do with Australopithecus but my interest in “Lucy” began when I started my UG degree in Anthropology here at Durham. One of my first lectures was on our Biological and Social Origins and we learnt about our evolutionary heritage. Lucy caught my eye because she was one of the most complete finds of this species at that time. Also as it was thought that she was more closely related to Homo genus than any other Australopithecus at that time.
I found it fascinating that from her remains we could postulate that she was bipedal and from her pelvis we could deduce that she would have gave birth to a larger brained infant than previous species. We can further postulate that her infant care practices would be more similar to our own, larger brained infant would have to complete their growth outside the womb and would require parental investment as opposed to leaving the infants for long periods in a nest or them being fully mature to feed themselves. I have long been fascinated with our origins and have always loved tattoos so felt the need to combine the two.
I approached Anthony Wilkinson a tattoo artist at Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Middlesbrough, UK. And his style of work was perfect for Lucy. We scoured the internet looking for an appropriate image and we found the one that I’m currently sporting on my arm today.
I like to refer to it as Lucy but it’s entirely possible the image we found is not actually Lucy. My supervisor, Professor Gillian Bentley identified it as Australopithecus but thought it was too robust for Lucy. So others might debate that it’s not actually Lucy, but I’m certain it’s Australopithecus, which is close enough for me.
I love the idea that around 3 million years ago little Lucy was living her life with no idea–no concept–of tattooing, never mind how famous she would be in the anthropological world millions of years later.
I’m heading south to give a series of talks about everything from evolution to science tattoos, the future of journalism, and the mutant bird flu saga. Most of these talks are open to the public. Here’s the rundown, with the public talks noted:
Thursday 11 am: Bethesda, MD: “Telling the Stories of Science in Words and Images.”
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases Fellows Scientific Retreat.
Thursday 3 pm: Arlington VA: “The Darwin Beat.”
National Science Foundation
Friday 9:30 am: US Science Engineering Festival, Washington DC Convention Center:
I’m part of the festival’s “Nifty Fifty”–speakers who talk to high school students about science. In room 146A, I’ll be giving a sneak peek of my Science Ink talk to a group of students, in advance of the festival, which officially starts on Saturday.
Saturday: US Science and Engineering Festival, Washington DC Convention Center: open to the public
I’ll be speaking twice about Science Ink –both talks are open to the public
10:55 AM-11:40 AM Stage Meeting Room Number: 147AB
Noon to 1: Book signing Expo Hall B
2-2:30 PM National Academy of Sciences Booth 603
Monday noon: Radio Times, WHYY in Philadelphia
I’ll be talking with Marty Moss-Coane. You can listen live via the show web page.
Tuesday: Washington DC and Internetlandia: 8:30 to 5 pm: National Academy of Sciences meeting on the mutant bird flu controversy. Open to the public
The official name of this meeting is, “Issues Raised, Lessons Learned, and Potential Strategies for Dual-Use Research in the Life Sciences: The H5N1 Controversy.” Leading scientists and ethicists will be talking about the surreal saga of the bird flu viruses that have been transformed into mammal-infecting pathogens. (For those foggy on the history, I’ve written about it in Slate, the New York Times, and here on the Loom.) I’ll be talking on a panel at 1:15 about the relationship between scientists and the public when it comes to this sort of research, offering some perspective from the media.
The whole meeting is open to the public, but you have to register. I’m also told it’s going to be livestreamed. The link should appear on the meeting page, and I’ll try to post it here on Tuesday.
Whew! That’s it. Fortunately, I’ll have enough time in Philadelphia to take in a visit to the Mutter Museum. If you don’t know what it is, and don’t mind getting deeply unsettled by the sight of soap cadavers and Einstein’s brain, you really owe it to yourself to go. It is an experience like no other. I hope to blog about my visit upon my return.
Brian Switek writes,
I have an Allosaurus on my arm. Heart of Gold Tattoo artist Jon McAffee put it there a few weeks ago. I think the tattoo—designed for me by friend and artist Glendon Mellow—came out beautifully. Contorted into the classic dinosaur death pose, the Jurassic apex predator is an expression of my passions and aspirations.
Paleontologists have uncovered scores of fascinating dinosaurs. I would have been proud to carry almost any dinosaur on my sleeve. But I knew my first science ink had to be Allosaurus. The dinosaur is not only the state fossil of Utah—I moved to the beehive state last year to get closer to dinosaurs—but the familiar predator is also an enigma.
Around 150 million years ago, when Allosaurus stalked across Jurassic Utah, the fern-covered landscape boasted an astounding diversity of huge dinosaurs. This was the time of giants such as Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, Barosaurus and Stegosaurus, and these dinosaurs were prey for nightmarish carnivores such as Torvosaurus, Ceratosaurus and, of course, Allosaurus. There was scarcely a more fantastic time in the Age of Dinosaurs. But not all these dinosaurs were equally abundant. Among the big predators, Allosaurus is uncovered much more often than any of its knife-toothed competitors. At the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry outside Price, Utah, remains of more than 46 Allosaurus have been discovered so far, while only rare tidbits of other predators turned up. What was it about Allosaurus that made it the dominant carnivore of Jurassic Utah? I love mysteries like this. Allosaurus has been known to paleontologists for more than 130 years, but there are still some things about this creature that we just don’t know.
You can read more from Brian at his blog, Dinosaur Tracking.
Just a quick reminder that I’ll be talking about Science Ink on Thursday at 7 pm at the Guilford Free Library in Guilford, CT. I’ll be in the lovely Historical Room on the second floor. Fortunately, I’ll have some historical engravings of tattooed Maori and such to match the ambiance.
I’ve talked about Science Ink at tattoo parlors and scientific academies, in New York and Los Angeles. Now I’m delighted to take a stroll through my own town to speak at the Guilford Free Library here in Guilford, CT. I hope Loominaries along the shoreline can join me.
When: Thursday, March 8, 7 pm.
Where: Guilford Free Library, 67 Park Street, Guilford CT.
The talk is free, but you need to register on the library’s web site.
Next week is Social Media Week, during which time the American Museum of Natural History is hosting an exploration of science and social media. It will take place on Thursday, 2/16, at 6 pm, and after the official panel discussion there will be a beer and wine reception in the Museum’s Hall of Minerals and Gems.
The panelists for the evening include–
Ben Lillie, the physicist turned spoken-word impresario who has founded the delightful Story Collider
Matt Danzico, a BBC journalist who conducted a 365-day blog experiment called “The Time Hack” looking at how we perceive time
Ruth Cohen, Director of the Center for Lifelong Learning at the American Museum of Natural History, who will talk about how the museum uses apps to help kids learn about urban biodiversity
–and me. I’ll talk about how social media (primarily the Loom) turned me into a curator of science tattoos and then an author of a decidedly unusual coffee table book.
The discussion will be moderated by Jennifer Kingson, an editor in the Science Department at The New York Times.
The event is free, but you need to register on the event page.
A fair number of scientists like to get a tattoo to celebrate their research. Ryan Carney, a biologist at Brown University has taken the practice one step further. He’s gotten a tattoo that shows the key finding of a paper he and his colleagues have just published today. They studied a fossil feather from Archaeopteryx, the iconic bird (or almost-bird). They conclude it looked just like this tattoo.
Carney collaborated on the research with a team of scientists who have developed a method to reconstruct colors from fossils. One source of colors in animals is a cellular structure called a melanosome. Depending on the size, shape, and spacing of melanosomes, they can produce a range of hues. It turns out that melanosomes are incredibly rugged, sometimes enduring for millions of years.
As I wrote in the New York Times in 2009, the scientists first found melanosomes in the ink sac of a fossil squid and then went on to look at a 47-million-year-old bird feather. Then they went on to look at the feathers and feather-like structures of dinosaurs, reconstructing some of the colors of their plumage. The color pattern, which included stripes and tufts, hints that dinosaurs may have been using their feathers to show off to each other long before they evolved flight. (More details can be found in this story I wrote for National Geographic last year.)
No examination of feather evolution would be complete, of course, without Archaeopteryx. For over 150 years, it’s been at the center of debates about the history of birds–not to mention evolution itself.
The first fossil of Archaeopteryx was a single feather–the one that Carney has turned into a tattoo. It was discovered in 1861 in a limestone quarry near the town of Solnhofen and brought to Hermann von Meyer, one of Germany’s leading paleontologists at the time. As scientists would later determine, this exceptional feather was 145 million years old. Despite its antiquity, the feather looked much like the feathers on the wings of living birds.
The fossil was so extraordinary that Von Meyer wondered if some forger had etched it. After all, Solnhofen limestone was prized for making finely detailed lithographic prints. But then von Meyer compared the slab and the counterslab and found them to be identical.
“No draughtsman could produce anything so real,” he declared.
Even as von Meyer was studying the feather, the quarry at Solhofen yielded another spectacular fossil: an entire animal cloaked in feathers. Word of the fossil spread fast, but only a few scientists got to glimpse the fossil in person. Its owner, a local doctor, was carefully managing the access to his fossil to fuel a bidding war for his entire fossil collection. Those few glimpses were enough to electrify scientists across Germany and beyond. The animal looked in some ways like a bird. It had wing feathers draped from its arms, for example. But other parts of its body looked more like a reptile’s, such as its long bony tail. It was unlike anything alive today.
At the end of 1861, Von Meyer came up with a name to describe both fossils: Archaeopteryx lithographica—the lithographic first bird.
The debut of Archaeopteryx 150 years ago was a case of beautiful timing. Just two years earlier, Charles Darwin had published The Origin of Species, in which he claimed that living animals had evolved from transitional ancestors. “Had the Solenhofen quarries been commissioned – by august command – to turn out a strange being a la Darwin – it could not have executed the behest more handsomely – than in the Archaeopteryx,” wrote the paleontologist Hugh Falconer.
Darwin agreed. “It is a grand case for me,” he confided to a friend.
In later years, more fossils of Archaeopteryx emerged, and it became even more of a chimera. Like a bird, it had feathers on its entire body. But unlike living birds, it had teeth in its mouth and claws on its wings. Darwin’s followers continued to argue that it marked a transition in the origin of birds. But opponents of Darwin and his followers argued that a single species—especially one with feathers no different than those on living birds—did not establish a full-blown transition.
“Their views must be at once rejected as fantastic dreams,” the German paleontologist Andreas Wagner declared.
Wagner turned out to be wrong. A number of bird-like dinosaurs have come to light in the years since the discovery of Archaeopteryx, and researchers have been able to work out many of their relationships to each other. There’s still plenty of debate about just how well Archaeopteryx itself could fly, as well as its precise place in the dinosaur-bird tree of life. Last July fellow Discover blogger Ed Yong wrote about a new study suggesting other dinosaurs were more closely related to living birds than Archaeopteryx.
In a study funded by the National Geographic Society, Carney and his colleagues were able to sample tiny bits of the original, lone Archaeopteryx fossil, housed in a museum in Germany. They examined its melanosomes, comparing them to the melanosomes in 115 living birds. As they report today, the feather was most likely straight black, as you see it in Carney’s tattoo.
While a single feather isn’t enough to reconstruct Archaeopteryx’s entire appearance, it does provide some interesting clues about the animal. The feather was what’s known as a covert, meaning that it was sandwiched in the middle of the wing, covering the primary flight feathers but covered in turn by the feathers at the wing’s leading edge. As a result, it was mostly hidden from sight. So its black color couldn’t have served to attract the opposite sex or to camouflage it from enemies. It’s possible that the whole wing was black, and this particular covert just went along on the evolutionary ride. It’s also possible, Carney and his colleagues speculate, that the melanosomes were serving another function in this particular feather. In living birds, melanosomes can block bacterial infections, and they can also make feathers hard, preventing them from breaking under the forces of flight.
As for the function of black pigmentation on the shoulders of biologists–well, that’s another story.
Reference: R.M. Carney et al, “New evidence on the colour and nature of the isolated Archaeopteryx feather.” Nature Communications 2012 doi: 10.1038/ncomms1642