Last week, I spent some time in the truly amazing Vienna Natural History Museum – more about that later. Tucked away in a staircase between the second and third floors is a small exhibit about the history of the museum that devotes a lot of space to the early history of the collection (and virtually none to those seven years after 1938 the Viennese would rather forget about). In one of these cases I found the little statue you see to the right, a plaster concoction from a Dr. Friedrich König. Continue reading
As some of you will know, I spent the last six years working on my PhD thesis about the cultural, scientific, and political influence of Andrew Carnegie’s casts of the dinosaur Diplodocus carnegii (and one Diplodocus longus that Carnegie had nothing to do with) in the first decades of the twentieth century. I shall defend my thesis on Thursday, May 11th (yes, that’s next week). There are plans in motion to publish the book next year. If you’d like to be kept informed about those plans and the book, please leave your e-mail address here.
What is it about, this book? Well, to answer that all-too-obvious question I shall give a summary below.
Museums present their cultural treasures as tangible proof of historical events; robust sources of scientific knowledge and transparent cultural images for the public to identify with. Natural history museums show their fossil relics as incomplete but uncomplicated witnesses of life’s past. Continue reading
(This is a repost of a short piece I wrote for the Shells and Pebbles blog a while ago, but I thought it would not be out of place here and have adapted the text somewhat. In addition, it gives me the opportunity to show off Heilmann’s whole Iguanodon picture, above).
The Danish artist-cum-scientist Gerhard Heilmann, who became famous for his book The Origin of Birds, published a little-known, short piece about Iguanodon a few years later, in an issue of Othenio Abel’s journal Palaeobiologica, dedicated to the Belgian paleontologist Louis Dollo. In many ways, this Iguanodon is much more ‘old-fashioned’ than his dynamic restorations in The Origin of Birds. First, it is positioned much more vertically. Although its tail doesn’t rest on the ground in the way that, for example, Charles Knight reconstructed his bipedal dinosaurs, it is still an altogether more stodgy-looking affair. This is further enhanced by the fact that the animal now looks very iguana- (and therefore reptile-) like.
A few years ago, the presenters of the car show Top Gear (yes, I know) compared American and British police chase videos, much to the detriment of the latter. Where car chases from the United States offered exciting, edge-of-seat entertainment, UK coppers seemed unduly hampered by procedure, protocol and a marked lack of performance from their Astra diesels. There may be very good reasons for this (taking into account the 5,000 bystanders killed by American police car chases since 1979) but it’s all so much less exciting. Any ten-year-old will gladly swap the dullness of safety for a chance to go out in a blaze (pun intended) of glory.
Read more on the Popular Palaeontology blog
Megalosaurus in the Valkenburg Gemeentegrot. Photo: Tim de Zeeuw
The town of Valkenburg is located in gently rolling hills on the southern border of the Dutch isthmus of Limburg, bordered by Belgium to the south and west, and Germany to the east. For centuries, people have been mining the rich sandstone deposits in the area, and have thus stumbled upon numerous fossils. Perhaps none are more famous than those of Mosasaurus. The first of these was found in 1764 and now resides in the wonderful Teylers Museum in Haarlem (which also happens to be my part-time employer). The other, found around 1772, found its way to Paris through the evil machinations of the devious French (note that I’m not judging anyone).
(This is a repost of a short piece I wrote for the Shells and Pebbles blog a while ago, but I thought it would not be out of place here. However, since I didn’t really investigate the origin of the feathered dinosaur idea, I’m a bit unhappy with my assertion made here that Reichel was the first to propose the concept. Hence the question mark).
While the rest of the world was dedicating way too much time and resources to exterminating one another, Switzerland remained a relatively tranquil spot in 1941 Europe. In that year, the micropaleontologist Manfred Reichel published an article outlining his views on the ‘first bird’, Archaeopteryx lithographica. Reichel’s text but particularly his illustrations are at least partly inspired by the work of Gerhard Heilmann in his very influential The Origin of Birds, a book that was to dominate the field of avian and flight evolution for decades afterwards. And like Heilmann, the exquisite artwork serves to support the ideas set out in the article. And like Heilmann, Reichel can be very critical of earlier ideas.
Read more on the Shells and Pebbles blog
Parisians who visited a newsstand or book store in the spring of 1886 were confronted with the frightening prospect of a dinosaurian intrusion into their sixth-floor apartments. It was introduced to them by a poster that was part of the advertising campaign for French author Camille Flammarion’s new book (and newspaper serial) Le monde avant la création de l’homme (‘The world before man’s creation’).The whole approach of the publicity campaign turned out to be a good indication of the tone of the book. Flammarion’s book was a work of popular science, and sought to awe and entertain its readers as much as inform them. Although the rather overweight dinosaur here borrows heavily from the reconstructions made about fifteen years earlier by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins for the Crystal Palace exhibition, the image of a dinosaur standing next a high building looking into its top floors would prove compelling enough to last.
Read more at the Shells and Pebbles blog
Most of what remains of “Hydrarchos”. All images © courtesy of the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.
As you might have guessed from the title of this blog, I have a bit of a ‘thing’ going for Albert Koch’s Hydrarchos harlani. Last week, we were lucky enough to meet up with Hydrarchos (or part of her) in person, in the basement of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. Continue reading
Smith et al. vs. Feduccia in The Auk (paywall alert!):
“As scientists in the 21st century, we cannot ignore or discard data that are inconvenient or do not fit into a preconceived notion.”
Written in letters of blood.
A somewhat older ad, but considering my connection with its most prominent (
and certainly largest) subject I thought it worthwile to post.
To be honest, from the insurer’s point of view, its implications seem to be somewhat disturbing…
From Hans Schouwenburg’s ‘emotional call to arms’ for a more activist history of science, on the Shells and Pebbles blog:
I think that we, PhD candidates in the history of science, should help our colleagues in the labs. For too long we have passively described science in action, without answering the climate scientist’s call for practical action. Even worse, as Latour observed, our critical apparatus of cultural deconstruction is now being used by the ‘worst possible fellows’ to deny global warming. We are scholars who try to describe the political, ideological and social aspects of science, but we are also humans who care about the future of our planet and humanity. Because of climate change, and because of ‘bad guys’ who refer to us to trivialize the problem, our very future is at stake! We can no longer observe these developments from a distance. It is about time to draw a firm line and come into action.
I can hardly express how much I believe we should remain passive. Or at least, if we choose to get active as concerned citizens, we should seriously doubt whether we can still function as historians. Continue reading
A big-budget film about dinosaurs will always make the headlines, particularly if it is the follow-up of Steven Spielberg’s wildly successful Jurassic Park, from 1991. Dinosaurs, at least those visible to us on cinema and TV screens, were never the same after that. But not all is well in the land of blockbuster dinosaurs. Paleontologists, science bloggers and JP fans have been riled by the filmmakers’ decision to leave the dinosaurs in the upcoming sequel – Jurassic World (2015) – without feathers.
Read more at Shells and Pebbles
A bit of a panic yesterday. We’re in the middle of moving house at the moment, from a rather large apartment without a garden to a large garden with a smaller house. Unfortunately, that calls for a significant culling of our book collection or, if you will, a fortunate separation of the chaff from the corn. I had brought a few boxes of books to a nearby second-hand bookseller’s when I noticed I missed one particular volume – and one of those spine-freezing sensations set in. Continue reading
Why are all those people up there?
The Paris Diplodocus in 1908, which hasn’t changed much since those days. The (second-floor) gallery with the cast is deserted, but look at the multitudes on the third floor. This leads me to suspect that it must be taken shortly after the mounting of the cast had been finished, perhaps even on the eve of the unveiling (June 15, 1908) by the French President, Edmond Fallières.
(From the Lost Spendor Tumblr.)
… but otherwise surprisingly modern-looking.
The predominant image of dinosaurs as water-going creatures did not limit itself to sauropods; hadrosaurs were also considered to be pond dwellers for a long time. However, the idea of Iguanodon as an aquatic animal was not quite so common. This German work from the late 1940s is testimony to the fact that German paleontology had some pretty idiosyncratic ideas of its own.
(Illustration taken from P. Bultynck, Bernissart en de Iguanodons (Brussels: Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences, 1987), p. 74.)
Hydrarchos harlani, contemporary etching (ca. 1845)
This isn’t so much a blog as a place for me to reflect on the history of paleontology. Don’t expect academic, article-sized contributions here. Instead, it’s a place to comment about publications in paleontology, the history of science and things related to either that seem relevant to me.
Hydrarchos harlani was a creative amalgam consisting of several skeletal parts originally belonging to the fossil whale Basilosaurus (Zeuglodon). ‘Dr.’ Albert Karl Koch, a German who had emigrated to the United States, handily played into the then current interest in sea snakes, and toured the United States, and later Europe, with his invention in the 1840s. Eventually, the first Hydrarchos was bought by the Prussian royal zoological cabinet in 1848.
We’ll get back to the details of the Hydrarchos story at length, but I chose it as the name for this site because it symbolizes the crossroads of science, popular culture, and history – and of course not because of my intention to deceive you as a reader. I hope.