Science is not perfect but it is important – that’s the point

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Robert Gebelhoff suggests we recognize that science is far from unassailable and easily twisted to push various political agendas or to bolster our own particular world view. Gebelhoff then points to a variety of ways that science has been misused, and concludes by suggesting we refuse to have opinions where we don’t have a clear answer.

Whereas we should all be skeptical of proclamations from authority, Gebelhoff is far from alone in missing key aspects that give science its power. Let’s start by asking, what do you mean by “science”? Often nebulously imagined as a search for ultimate truth, science is no more nor less than the best tool we have for answering questions about the natural world. Ideally, those who do science abide by strict rules of conduct. Your hypotheses, laws, and theories must be testable, falsifiable, and predictive. Your claims are only valid if you have data to support them. You recognize your own inherent human bias and so have your work evaluated carefully by experts, a process known as peer review. If your peers and others cannot replicate your observations or experiments, the burden falls on you to either provide more evidence or reject or modify your conclusions. Ultimately, the data decide.

Science is a tool, but it is used by humans and that means that it will never be “anywhere near perfect” as Gebelhoff laments. This is certainly true, but ignores the fact that it is typically scientists themselves who catch errors and correct them. As is often said, science is a self-correcting discipline: if data keep piling up that contradict previous or current hypotheses, we reject the old and embrace the new because it is closer to what actually occurs in nature. Being truthful may not hold much currency in some human affairs, but if you lie and distort your data in science, sooner or later you will be found out and it will almost certainly mean the end of your career. Believe me, peer review is not for the faint-hearted.

Yes, science is not perfect. But this misses a crucial concept: there is no absolute certainty in science — there is simply probability.  As scientists we recognize that we are human and can only realistically deal in samples. For example, when it comes to climate change, we simply can’t have all the data on all the clouds, carbon dioxide, and local temperatures everywhere and always.  Therefore, we indicate that our data suggest certain scenarios are more probable than others. The higher the probability, the more confident one can be that the predictions will come to pass based on the data.

Here we get to the root of so many problems at the intersection of science and politics. Especially now, many of us have taken rigid political sides and we hide behind our identity bunkers, secure in the knowledge that our politics are the right ones. Recognizing the authority of science, but failing to understand where that authority comes from, we cherry pick and twist what we have read about science to aid our fight. Few people go beyond a news blurb, Facebook post, or tweet, and rarer still do we read what the scientists actually reported. In other areas of politics, we can easily deny the significance of scientific findings by turning the nature of science itself on its head: until we can be certain, we claim, there is no need for action. How often have you heard something like, “Let’s just wait until all the data are in, and then we’ll make an informed decision.” This is simply a way to deny significant findings and to wait forever, potentially putting us in harm’s way.

Perhaps the most frustrating assertion in Gebelhoff’s article is that since the U.S. government spends billions of dollars on non-defense research each year, “with so much money at stake, it’s simply unrealistic to expect all scientists to act purely for the advancement of knowledge.” These sorts of statements really hurt those of us for whom science is not just a profession but a vocation. First, Gebelhoff’s claim that “$70 billion” is spent on non-defense research is misleading. Yes, in 2016 approximately $70 billion was spent on non-defense research and development, but it is “folded into the budgets of more than two dozen federal departments and independent agencies, and there may be little or no distinction made between activities” (https://www.aaas.org/fy16budget/federal-rd-fy-2016-budget-overview). Furthermore, as an example, in 2015 the total U.S. government budget was approximately $1.1 trillion, and science funding accounted for only 3% or about $30 billion of that money. Second, the majority of the money is often spent on supporting and training students and postdocs, as well as (rightly so) public outreach and education. Most scientists, if they ever receive this highly competitive funding, are not rolling in cash. Only 20% of the grant requests the National Science Foundation receives are funded each year, and the average annual award is approximately $160,000. Think about that – the average annual grant award for supporting students, buying equipment, publishing the results for the public, and doing outreach is less than the average annual salary of a medical doctor in the U.S. The truth is, if you want to be a rich scientist you pursue a career in the private sector.

Gebelhoff is correct – science is not perfect and its conclusions can be twisted to justify political ends. But this is no reason to lose hope in the power and benefit of science as a tool. Recognizing that our politics often distort the nature of science, we must stop expecting science to give us absolute certainty to justify our preconceived notions. Instead, we must struggle to remember that science is an apolitical tool for understanding nature. It is powerful in that it helps us predict, often very accurately, the likely outcomes of our actions here on earth. Science doesn’t care about your politics, but like all tools, it can be bent toward noble or ignoble ends. Let’s choose wisely.

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Yes, climate change is real. Yes, humans have played a role.

Today on the first full day of a new presidential administration that has already pivoted in digital media to downplay or possibly scrub climate change from the national conversation; and to join other scientists concerned with support of science including the science of climate change #USofScience, I am reposting my older post on science and climate change from a few years ago. The message is as relevant as ever. Climate change is real. The rapid climate change documented in recent history is tied to human activity. No amount of political argument or wishing it away can change that. I say that as a former climate change denier. I emphasize that climate data are what they are — carbon dioxide doesn’t care whether you are a Democrat, Republican, or Independent. Rapid climate change is occurring, and humans have played a role. What follows is my original and slightly tweaked post.


As the National Center For Science Education has been demonstrating for some time now, denying biological evolution and denying climate change are part of a larger phenomenon related to science illiteracy.   But I think we often tend to conflate the knowing of scientific data with knowing the process of science itself.  As a college professor, I can tell you that  smart students who know a lot about the natural world don’t always actually know the process of science.  In one of my first lectures to undergraduates in the introductory biology majors course, when I press them to define science, hypothesis, and so on, very few can.  And I have come to believe that our current societal issue with accepting science is a fundamental misunderstanding of the process, not simply a dearth of facts.

In my undergraduate days, I was a climate change denier.  That’s correct — I felt that the evidence was at best equivocal for global warming.  If you couldn’t prove it directly, how confident could we be?  In fact, I felt a good amount of the environmental “science” out there was nothing more than misplaced hysteria or political propaganda. For those who do know me and my political leanings, you are probably surprised.

So I speak from experience when I say that I understand the reservations among many people when it comes to climate change.  Ask any climate scientist, and they will never tell you with 100% certainty that their predictions will come to pass.  In fact, these scientists rely on models of climate, and those models are a hypothesis of reality, not reality itself.  Remember, I was a science major with aspirations of becoming a paleontologist, so my undergraduate self decided that if we couldn’t be certain, we shouldn’t go around broadcasting that it was the end of the world.  In my undergraduate head, the best science was certain, and that was why paleontology was so difficult — a lot of uncertainty.

So here’s the thing — a climate scientist can show you a lot of data (see below), and can tell you based on their expertise which are the most probable outcomes of current trends, but if you were my undergraduate self, you would not be convinced.

From Wikipedia Commons: “This image is a comparison of 10 different published reconstructions of mean temperature changes during the 2nd millennium.”

Whether or not my younger self (let alone my older self) was stubborn or simply a bit daft (probably both), I again point out a key feature in the thought process: if it isn’t certain, it’s not good science.

So, the assumption or implication that good science is certain is the first part of the puzzle.  The second part of the stubbornness by many of us to accept climate change or perhaps biological evolution is that we want evidence presented in a court room.  We want the TV show Law & Order, and we want the good lawyer to give us an iron-clad argument, or to show that our opponent is a lesser person, or to literally give us a smoking gun.  We are convinced that science works like this, and that the person with the best argument and evidence wins.  And most importantly, that the winner stays the winner.  Nothing can ever overturn the win.  Good science should be certain and win the day’s argument, for now and forever.

But of course, science has little or nothing to do with certainty and court room drama.  There is no certainty in science — there is simply probability.  Because a good scientist recognizes that we are only human, and we can only realistically deal in samples, we can’t measure every aspect of the known universe, and we certainly can’t have all the data on all the clouds, carbon dioxide, and local temperatures.  Therefore, a good scientist will never say they have “proved” something — rather, they will indicate that their data suggest certain scenarios are more probable than others.  The higher the probability, the more confident one can be that the predictions may come to pass.

It took a while for this concept to sink in with me.  It took graduate school and having to do science, and taking an excellent seminar from Professor Emeritus Ronald Toth at Northern Illinois University, that finally made science as a process click.

(As an important aside, much of my thinking as a scientist I owe to Ron — so the “smart” stuff I say about evolution and science are me emulating him.  My evolution podcasts and understanding evolution website are extensions [and I hope a sincere form of flattery] of Ron’s approach.  Thank you, Ron!)

That means, as someone who earned a B.S. in Geology with a Biology major, I had no real concrete idea about science as a process!  I am not surprised nor judgmental that many of our undergraduates, let alone the larger public, don’t understand this either — but this I believe is what needs to be most addressed.

Even if you do succeed in uncovering something new or accurately predicting a trend, there will always be new data. The complaint you often hear about science is how we keep changing our damn minds — we knew Pluto was a planet, or we knew that birds were not dinosaurs, or we knew that cholesterol was bad, and so on. But the process of science requires that one keep testing the hypothesis, and to incorporate new data as it comes in.  So we’re not changing our minds to tick you off — we adapting our models and our understanding of the natural world as more data come rolling in.

What I realized at long last in graduate school was that scientists speak in probabilities.  And when you think about it, we deal in probabilities all the time, and we make decisions based on those probabilities, and we are okay with that.  Every time you get in a car, there is a probability you will be in an accident … but you probably still get in that car.  Imagine if someone told you that unless you could 100% guarantee that no accidents would ever occur, it was pointless to drive.

Okay, but now for something more ominous: what about the probability that you will get sick if you ingest salmonella bacteria.  I have been sickened myself by this nasty “bug,” and many people have died from salmonella poisoning.  But there will always be cases where someone ingests salmonella or another pathogen and doesn’t become sick.  Now imagine a friend tells you that since every time a person has ingested salmonella they haven’t always become ill or died, we don’t have enough data to know whether or not it is truly deadly.  Therefore, wasting money and resources on preventing the spread of salmonella is not advisable because we can’t know with 100% certainty that everyone who ingests it will get sick or die.  This person would probably not remain your friend for long.

Probability in science works along this spectrum — from low to high odds.  Low odds: you will be hit in the head and killed by a rouge meteorite tomorrow.  High odds: the climate will continue to change, with an overall trend toward higher global temperatures.  Can we be certain climate will change in these ways?  Not 100%.  But the probabilities are high … and that’s why we should be concerned: the scientific predictions of increasing global temperatures suggest our world will change in ways that, if we are not prepared, will be devastating.  Of course, we could wait until we’re certain, and we could wait for the ultimate court room battle of the sciences … but if the probabilities are high, why wait?  What are waiting for?  Waiting for all the data to come in (which will never happen) and waiting for 100% certainty (which will never happen) is simply another way of doing nothing in the face of probable danger.

If you understand that the process of science is by its very nature is one based on probability, not certainty, I think we begin to get to the heart of the scientific illiteracy problem.  Giving people more and more data won’t help if they sincerely believe that uncertainty means no one knows anything.  This is, I believe, the core issue with science literacy — and why our politicians, our media, and our public are so often mislead to disregard good science and its important predictions that effect us all.

Using X-rays to learn what walking rats can teach us about early placental mammal locomotion

In paleontology, we often infer the habits and behaviors of fossil vertebrates by reference to their skeletal shape. However, it is often difficult to appreciate what those shapes are telling us: how well does shape correlate with motion?

We are members of the eutheiran branch of the mammal family tree. Among many questions concerning mammal evolution, one is how did the earliest eutherian (so-called “placental”) mammals use their forelimbs? This question has important implications for how our earliest relatives got around. The earilest known members of our group are small and are often hypothesized to be scansorial (Luo et al., 2003, 2011), meaning that they are at home on the ground as well as clambering up trees.These inferences are drawn in large part from the form of the fossilized forelimb bones and their presumed functions.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I have been immersed in learning XROMM (X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology), a technique that combines video fluoroscopy (X-ray movies) with registration of three-dimensional bone models to yield 3-D moving X-rays.

I am happy to report that my colleagues, two Stockton undergraduates (Radha Varadharajan and Corey Gilbert), and I have published an Open Access article in PLoS One that, for the very first time, reconstructs the three-dimensional movements of the long bones (humerus, radius, ulna) in the forelimb of rats. Why rats? Rats have a forelimb anatomy that is very similar in many ways to those of the earliest eutherian mammals, and as a plus, rats are scansorial. Rats are also relatively easy mammals to work with in the lab (although some days they out-clever the humans) and can be trained. As a fun side note, we named two of the rats Pink and Floyd.

Our setup was straightforward — at the C-arms XROMM lab at Brown University, the rats walked along a plank of wood to a darkened hide box. While traversing the plank, they made their X-ray cameos in two fluoroscopes connected to hi-speed cameras filming at 250 frames per second (your iPhone camera films at 30 frames per second in normal mode). When we were finished collecting our data, the rats were CT-scanned so that we could have exact three-dimensional models of their limb bones. The most painstaking part was the several months it took to digitize each of our good trials. That is, using animation software, we had to match the bone models up to their X-ray shadows in the two calibrated fluoroscope movies. Once this was accomplished, our task turned to watching how the bones moved in three-dimensional space as well as analyzing the joint angle data that was generated.

Our basic setup for the XROMM study -- rats were trained to walk across a plank towards a dark hide box, leading them between the two videofluoroscopes.

Our basic setup for the XROMM study — rats were trained to walk across a plank towards a dark hide box, leading them between the two videofluoroscopes.

What we found both confirms previous work on small mammal locomotion, but added some interesting new insights as well. As a general rule, small mammals have a crouched posture where the elbows and knees are bent. This type of posture may aid small mammals in maneuvering around objects and keeping a lower center of gravity, which would enhance stability, especially on branches and other narrow perches. Not surprisingly and given previous work on rat locomotion, we see that these mammals do indeed walk on crouched limbs — the elbow angle, for example, never exceeded 123 degrees in full extension. By way of comparison, your elbow can be extended to 180 degrees.

A figure from my book, The Bare Bones. Note how the rat has a more crouched posture whereas the cat is more upright.

A figure from my book, The Bare Bones. Note how the rat has a more crouched posture whereas the cat is more upright.

However, we often get the impression that mammal locomotion is similar at different scales. From cats and dogs on up, it appears that the forelimbs and hindlimbs function very much as glorified pendulums. In essence, eutherian mammal locomotion is understood as mostly two-dimensional. Although rats are small and have a crouched posture, their limb bones would be presumed to follow the pendulum model.

But what the bones were doing in three-dimensions was fascinating. Both the humerus (upper arm bone) and radius (the forearm bone that aligns with your thumb) showed they were capable of long-axis rotation. Long-axis rotation is similar to the way a lathe or axle spins. Our rats’ bones certainly weren’t spinning on their long-axis, but they did show a non-trivial range of movement. A step cycle consists of a stance phase (when the hand is on the ground and forelimb is supporting the body) and a swing phase (when the hand is off the ground and the forelimb is swinging back to support the body for the next step). We found that during stance, the humerus both moves toward the midline (adducts) and rotates on its long axis towards the body. These combined movements appear to ensure that the elbow points backwards so that the forearm maintains an upright posture. During swing, the humerus moves away from the body midline (abducts) and rotates on its long axis away from the body. These combined movements seem to allow the forelimb to clear the rat’s body as the limb is brought forward to start a new step.

Lateral, ventral, and radioulnar joint views of the humerus (sea green), radius (black), and ulna (red) in a typical step cycle in Rattus norvegicus. Long-axis rotation (LAR) of the radius about the ulna (radius pronation) is shown in cranial view from the perspective of the ulna (the ulna appears to be stationary in the radioulnar joint view relative to the humerus and radius). Note radius (black) LAR relative to the ulna (red). Percentages = portion of the step cycle. Black bar in ventral view = body midline based on sternum.

Lateral (side), ventral (belly), and radioulnar joint (at the elbow) views of the humerus (sea green), radius (black), and ulna (red) in a typical step cycle in Rattus norvegicus. Long-axis rotation (LAR) of the radius about the ulna (radius pronation) is shown in cranial view (the rat is walking toward you) from the perspective of the ulna (the ulna appears to be stationary in the radioulnar joint view relative to the humerus and radius). Note radius (black) LAR relative to the ulna (red). Percentages = portion of the step cycle. Black bar in ventral view = body midline based on sternum.

MOVIE 1 – All the rats walking betwixt the fluoroscopes with their CT-scanned bones registered to the frames.

MOVIE 2 – One of our rats, “Floyd,” demonstrating a typical step cycle.

What was particularly exciting to me was that we saw, for the first time in rats, the radius pivot about the ulna! In humans, we take these movements for granted: our radius pivots around our ulna with ease, directing our palms either downward (pronated) when its shaft cross over the ulna, or upward (supinated) when its shaft rotates into parallel with the ulna. Up until now, it has been unclear if the radius could move in this way to flip the hand palm-side down in rats, or whether their hand posture was maintained via positioning of the limb in general. We now know that, indeed, the radius does move and does appear to be correlated with hand placement in rats. These movements are much more subtle than in you and I (in our rats a range of 10-30 degrees of rotation), but they appear to be correlated with pronation of the hand.

MOVIE 3 – One of our rats, “Floyd,” showing how the radius pivots on the ulna during a step cycle.

Our research has two messages. The first message is that given the similarities in the forelimb skeletons of the earliest known eutherian mammals (Juramaia and Eomaia) to those of rats, it is likely that a similar range of movements were possible in these distant relatives on our family tree. Paleontologists studying these fossils, such as Zhe-Xi Luo and colleagues (Luo et al., 2003, 2011), have already suggested these early eutherian mammals were scansorial, and our data bolster their hypothesis. These sorts of insights are helpful in constraining when particular locomotor behaviors and movements became possible and how that might have effected mammalian evolution.

The second message is that small mammal locomotion is probably not as similar to those of larger mammals as we often think, a sentiment echoed by the late Farish Jenkins (e.g., Jenkins, 1971) and by Martin Fischer and his colleagues (Fischer et al. 2002; Fisher and Blickman, 2006). Moreover, our rat data show that, at least for the forelimb, long-axis rotation plays a role in normal overground movement.

We hope our study provides another perspective on small mammal locomotion and encourages new and fruitful research in our furry friends past and present.

————————

I am grateful to my colleagues and former students for their help and work on this project. I want especially to thank Elizabeth Brainerd (Brown University). She has been a source of encouragement and a patient teacher to an old dinosaur learning new tricks, and her help with learning XROMM and on designing the experiment which led to this paper (my first foray into animal kinematics) was invaluable.

The authors of the paper (* indicates a Stockton University undergraduate)

Matthew F. Bonnan (Stockton University, Biology)
Jason Shulman (Stockton University, Physics)
*Radha Varadharajan (Stockton University, Biology)
*Corey Gilbert (Stockton University, Physics)
Mary Wilkes (Stockton University, Biology)
Angela Horner (California State University, San Berardino)
Elizabeth Brainerd (Brown University)

———————–

References

Fischer, M. S., and R. Blickhan. 2006. The tri-segmented limbs of therian mammals: kinematics, dynamics, and self-stabilization—a review. Journal of Experimental Zoology Part A: Comparative Experimental Biology 305A:935–952.

Fischer, M. S., N. Schilling, M. Schmidt, D. Haarhaus, and H. Witte. 2002. Basic limb kinematics of small therian mammals. The Journal of Experimental Biology 205:1315–38.

Jenkins, F. A. 1971. Limb posture and locomotion in the Virginia opossum (Didelphis marsupalis) and in other non-cursorial mammals. Journal of Zoology, London 165:303–315.

Luo, Z.-X., Q. Ji, J. R. Wible, and C.-X. Yuan. 2003. An Early Cretaceous Tribosphenic Mammal and Metatherian Evolution. Science 302:1934–1940.

Luo, Z.-X., C.-X. Yuan, Q.-J. Meng, and Q. Ji. 2011. A Jurassic eutherian mammal and divergence of marsupials and placentals. Nature 476:442–445.

Read the first chapter of The Bare Bones

BareBmecDue to requests for a sampler of my forthcoming book from Indiana University Press, The Bare Bones, I am now making available a PDF of the first chapter. I think this will give you a feel for the tone of the book.

Thanks to everyone for all of the interest and enthusiasm for the book. It was truly a labor of love, and I hope many of you will find it enjoyable to read and useful to those who may use it as an educational resource.

The Bare Bones, Chapter 1

I am also giving another sneak preview at one of the figures, this one from Chapter 2:

Carnivorous mammals, such as a cat, tend to have a jaw joint in line with their sharp, shearing teeth, much as the handles of a pair of scissors align with the blades.  This puts the best cutting surface towards the back of the jaws.  In contrast, herbivorous mammals such as horses have a jaw joint located above the tooth row, allowing their teeth to simultaneously contact one another like a nutcracker.

Carnivorous mammals, such as a cat, tend to have a jaw joint in line with their sharp, shearing teeth, much as the handles of a pair of scissors align with the blades. This puts the best cutting surface towards the back of the jaws. In contrast, herbivorous mammals such as horses have a jaw joint located above the tooth row, allowing their teeth to simultaneously contact one another like a nutcracker.

Also remember, you can preorder The Bare Bones through Indiana University Press or Amazon.

If you are into e-books, it can also be purchased as an e-book. See the Indiana University Press website for links to the appropriate retailers.

Four-legged snakes and the myth of pure science

This Fall term I am teaching my dinosaurs course, but with a twist – it is a freshman-only seminar, and while we will cover dinosaur paleontology, the course is also designed to expose students to how science as a tool and culture intersect. For our first-year students, we assign a common reading, and this year’s reading is Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele. This excellent little book shows how pervasive stereotypes are and how they affect our identities. There are certainly many stereotypes surrounding scientists: when I have asked students to draw a scientist in previous courses, I almost always get a balding, white male with a lab coat and a test tube.

As I was looking for a recent example in vertebrate paleontology of the intersection of science and culture, news broke about the discovery of a remarkable fossil that may be an early snake with four legs! Many websites have now covered the discovery in detail, but controversy has surrounded the fossil because of remarks by the lead author, Dr. David Martill, concerning the fossil’s provenance. Provenance refers to the locality of the fossil and its preservational environment, key data that provide context and a timeline. And the provenance of Tetrapodophis amplectus (the species name of the fossil snake) is questionable because the fossil came from a private collection that was later donated to Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum, in Solnhofen, Germany. According to Martill, who responded to questions on the blog of Herton Escobar, “There is no label on the specimen that says when or how it was collected. It was only recognized as certainly being from Brazil because I am an expert on the Crato Formation and I recognized the rock it is preserved in, and its preservation style is exactly like that of the Crato Formation. It is undoubtedly from Brazil.”

This is problematic, because missing the provenance information makes the fossil far less informative. Although it may provide insights into snake evolution, without tighter controls on where and when in time the fossil was deposited, we have lost a lot of environmental context and its temporal relationship to other snake fossils. This is one of the reasons why, public or private, fossils collected without appropriate provenance information lose much of their scientific value.

What is more problematic than the scientific issue of provenance is the legality of the fossil in question. Brazil has laws which prohibit Brazilian fossils from leaving the country, and this suggests Tetrapodophis amplectus ended up in the private collection (from which Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum obtained it) illegally. The reasoning behind such laws stem from concern by Brazilians that their natural heritage is being expatriated, which adversely affects Brazilian paleontologists studying and reporting on their own fossils.

Martill is no stranger to Brazilian laws on fossil collection, and he has made it clear that he doesn’t respect Brazilian laws because they interfere with his ability to publish on new discoveries. According to Martill in a 2014 Nature news article, “Scientists who just want to go about doing science are frustrated.”

Beyond the pale, though, is Martill’s response to a reasonable question from Herton Escobar. Given that Martill recognized the fossil snake was of Brazilian origin, and given that it was likely collected under less-than-desirable circumstances, couldn’t Martill have reached out to a Brazilian paleontologist to collaborate on the study? Martill’s reponse: “But what difference would it make? I mean, do you want me also to have a black person on the team for ethnicity reasons, and a cripple and a woman, and maybe a homosexual too just for a bit of all round balance? … If you invite people because they are Brazilian then people will think that every Brazilian author on a scientific paper is there because he is Brazilian and not because he is a clever scientist.”

For a sociological perspective on this last, abhorrent statement, see Jess Bonnan-White’s post on this issue.

It is time we move past such blatantly colonial and derogatory attitudes about fossil provenance in vertebrate paleontology, and that we call out those who believe it is okay to continue to express such attitudes. Martill’s language exudes overtones of colonial Europe and America, that mostly white, male scientists are in the best position not only to understand nature but to take what they please from others they deem less human. And whereas Martill’s voice may be among the loudest, it certainly is not the only voice extolling these “virtues.” I have myself been told that it is best for those of us in first-world countries to get and prepare fossils from other places so that the science is done right.

And that is perhaps the most galling thing of all: that in the end, we pretend that this is all just about making the science right. That we perpetuate this myth of “pure science.” That, in the end, this is just about a remarkable fossil and nothing more. That because we are scientists we have the luxury of not giving a damn about anything other than the science. That we don’t have to consider other peoples, their customs, their laws, their cultures, or their right to their own natural history. When you say, “Personally I don’t care a damn how the fossil came from Brazil or when it came from Brazil. These are irrelevant to the scientific significance of the fossil,” what you are really saying is that science matters more than people. Science is a tool, but its application is far from neutral. Science is done a huge disservice when its usefulness as a tool for understanding nature supersedes that of understanding and respecting our fellow human beings, let alone our fellow paleontologists.

You don’t get to ignore laws and promote the expatriation of fossils from other people just because you are doing science. If we truly care about global natural history, and we truly care about the story the fossils tell, then we must come to terms with the fact that whereas fossils know no political boundaries, humans do. Thus, it is in our best interest as scientists to be more global in our appreciation of other countries and other peoples. If you are interested in Brazilian fossils, you should also be interested in Brazilian people, their politics, and their laws. If we truly believe science is an egalitarian enterprise where someone’s merit as a scientist comes from their ability, not their nationality, then we can no longer tolerate the excuse that science trumps all.

The Bare Bones – An Unconventional Evolutionary History of the Skeleton

I am happy to announce that I will be publishing my first book, The Bare Bones: An Unconventional Evolutionary History of the Skeleton with Indiana University Press. This has been a labor of love over the past 6 years, and it is great to see it finally coming to fruition.

What is the book about? An accessible guide to the evolutionary history of the skeleton — from the Indiana University Press “blurb”:

What can we learn about the evolution of jaws from a pair of scissors? How does the flight of a tennis ball help explain how fish overcome drag? What do a spacesuit and a chicken egg have in common? Highlighting the fascinating twists and turns of evolution across more than 540 million years, paleobiologist Matthew Bonnan uses everyday objects to explain the emergence and adaptation of the vertebrate skeleton. . .What can camera lenses tell us about the eyes of marine reptiles? How does understanding what prevents a coffee mug from spilling help us understand the posture of dinosaurs?. . .The answers to these and other intriguing questions illustrate how scientists have pieced together the history of vertebrates from their bare bones. With its engaging and informative text, plus more than 200 illustrative diagrams created by the author, The Bare Bones is an unconventional and reader-friendly introduction to the skeleton as an evolving machine.
Here is an example figure:
Fig 17.4 Metronome of science

The metronome of speed. In a musical metronome, the speed of the ticking pendulum is controlled by a weight on its end. In this case, a slow tempo results from placing the metronome’s weight far away from the pivot, whereas placing the weight close to the pivot allows it to tick faster. Similarly, a hypothetical dinosaur with a long femur and short leg and foot segments would be relatively slow because the heavy muscles that move the thigh are spread far from the hip joint, much like a metronome weight displaced far from the pivot. In contrast, a hypothetical dinosaur with a short femur and long leg and foot segments would be relatively fast because now the heavy thigh muscles are bunched near the hip joint, much like a metronome weight placed close to the pivot.

Why did I write it? I was inspired to write this book when I began teaching my own vertebrate evolution and paleontology course for undergraduate students. What I found was that many of these students were fascinated by vertebrate evolution, but that few, if any, went on to careers in museums and academe. Instead, many of my students were future teachers, doctors, veterinarians, and perhaps even politicians. There are many excellent books available on vertebrate paleontology, many of which I consulted in writing this book, but their focus tends to be strongly taxonomic and linearly chronological: who is who, who is related to whom, and in what order do we find them. However, the books that had truly inspired me to become a paleontologist were those that tackled the issue of functional morphology and paleobiology: what does the skeleton tell us about how the animal moved, fed, and behaved? This is the type of questions that motivated me as a student to learn about vertebrate history.
During my undergraduate days, I stumbled upon a small book called The Evolution of Vertebrate Design by the late paleontologist Leonard Radinsky that would truly influence my approach to writing. Radinsky took a complex subject like vertebrate paleontology and, using cartoons and brief but informative language, distilled the essence of our evolutionary story into a format that was friendly and approachable. In fact, I initially used his book in my vertebrate paleontology and evolution courses because it served as a jumping-off point for exploring the rich tapestry of vertebrate life past and present.
Given that Radinsky passed away in 1985, his beautiful book was never updated. Despite its appeal to my students, with each passing year the stack of articles I was assigning to supplement the understandably dated material was becoming larger than the book itself! Simultaneously, as my research developed into understanding the evolution of dinosaur locomotion, I was beginning to question why I had never paid more attention to classical mechanics in my physics courses. When I took physics, I found the course to be absolutely dull and dry. However, if you can understand the way that the machines and tools that surround us in our daily lives work the way that they do, you can approach the skeleton the same way. And then I thought, what if I tried to write a book about the evolution of the vertebrate skeleton as if I were someone trying to teach my younger self about classical mechanics and physics? Using Radinsky’s book as an inspiration and launch point, I began writing the book now being published: what I hope is a friendly but somewhat unconventional introduction and exploration of the history of the skeleton, using machine metaphors, for those who want to learn but do not (yet) have the chops for anatomy.
Why should you buy this book? Among many reasons, the best is probably that I have included a figure of a cat overturning a Prius.

The BFF Lab Students and Faculty in the Spotlight!

Black Beard the Bearded dragon,

Black Beard the Bearded dragon. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

I am excited to report that the Best Feet Forward (BFF) Lab has had its first local news story! Susan Allen at the Office of News & Media Relations at Stockton College has written a wonderful article that was distributed to the associated press today.  We thank Susan for this wonderful story, which we reproduce here in this post (see below).  All photos are copyright Susan Allen / The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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Stockton College Researchers Analyze Locomotion of Modern Day Reptiles, Mammals to Understand How Dinosaurs Moved

By Susan Allen, Office of News & Media Relations, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Galloway Township, NJ- Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major, cradled a bearded dragon in his hands as Cory Barnes, a senior Biology major, attached tiny reflective beads to the bumpy skin on the patient reptile’s forearm.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major (left), cradled a bearded dragon in his hands as Cory Barnes (right), a senior Biology major, attached tiny reflective beads to the bumpy skin on the patient reptile’s forearm.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major (left), cradled a bearded dragon in his hands as Cory Barnes (right), a senior Biology major, attached tiny reflective beads to the bumpy skin on the patient reptile’s forearm. Photo (c) Susan Allen / The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Black Beard, as the lizard is nicknamed, is one of three juvenile bearded dragons at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey taking part in an animal locomotion research project aimed at better understanding how dinosaurs once moved across our planet.

After body measurements were recorded, Black Beard was placed on a treadmill surrounded by a system of three infrared cameras and plastic containers that serve as safety nets in case a reptile runner strays off course.

As soon as Bayewu shook a clear jar of jumping crickets, Black Beard sprang into action. Alex Lauffer, a junior Biology major, flipped the conveyor belt switch, the treadmill kicked on and the cameras began transmitting data to Dr. Matthew Bonnan, associate professor of Biology, and Dr. Jason Shulman, assistant professor of Physics.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major from Maywood in Bergen County, shakes a jar of jumping crickets to motivate a beaded dragon to run on the treadmill. From the left, Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major from West Deptford in Gloucester County, Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major from West Deptford in Gloucester County, and Corey Barnes, a senior Biology major from Seaville in Cape May County, stand by.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major from Maywood in Bergen County, shakes a jar of jumping crickets to motivate a beaded dragon to run on the treadmill. From the left, Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major from West Deptford in Gloucester County, Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major from West Deptford in Gloucester County, and Corey Barnes, a senior Biology major from Seaville in Cape May County, stand by.  Photo (c) Susan Allen / The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Sophomore Biology majors Kieran Tracey and Alex Hilbmann stood close by, making sure Black Beard stayed on the treadmill.

Kieran Tracey, a sophomore Biology major from Sea Isle City in Cape May County, guides a beaded dragon to the treadmill as Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major from Maywood in Bergen County, holds a jar of crickets. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Kieran Tracey, a sophomore Biology major from Sea Isle City in Cape May County, guides a beaded dragon to the treadmill as Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major from Maywood in Bergen County, holds a jar of crickets. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

While Black Beard ran in place, the cameras captured the motion of each reflective bead sending real experimental data at the overwhelming rate of 120 frames-per-second to a computer program that can read and display the data as moving dots.

From behind their monitor, Bonnan, of Hammonton, and Shulman, of Egg Harbor Township, watched each step on their screen.

Dr. Matthew Bonnan, associate professor of Biology, and Dr. Jason Shulman, assistant professor of Physics, are working together with students to model dinosaur movement by studying modern day reptiles and mammals. “Given that the earliest mammals and dinosaurs had a forelimb posture not unlike lizards, they are acting as a model to test hypotheses about the transition from sprawling to upright forelimb postures,” said Bonnan. Shulman has been instrumental in analyzing the data, which is captured at 120 frames-per-second by a system of infrared cameras. “He is a big part of why we're able to do this. Without him, interpreting the data would be difficult at best,” said Bonnan. (c) Photo: Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Dr. Matthew Bonnan, associate professor of Biology, and Dr. Jason Shulman, assistant professor of Physics, are working together with students to model dinosaur movement by studying modern day reptiles and mammals. “Given that the earliest mammals and dinosaurs had a forelimb posture not unlike lizards, they are acting as a model to test hypotheses about the transition from sprawling to upright forelimb postures,” said Bonnan. Shulman has been instrumental in analyzing the data, which is captured at 120 frames-per-second by a system of infrared cameras. “He is a big part of why we’re able to do this. Without him, interpreting the data would be difficult at best,” said Bonnan. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Stepping Back in Time

“Without a time machine, we can’t put dinosaurs on a treadmill,” said Bonnan, who has been fascinated with dinosaurs since he was 5 years old. Instead, bearded dragons, ferrets, rats and a Savannah monitor are “standing in for their ancestors” at the Best Foot Forward (BFF) Laboratory on the main Galloway, NJ campus.

Bridget Kuhlman, a senior Biology major, of Little Egg Harbor in Ocean County, left, and Kelsey Gamble, a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, were in the Best Foot Forward Laboratory to gather data on ferret movement patterns. Kuhlman, said, “It’s a dream come true being able to work with ferrets. It’s getting me ready for vet school,” she said. She works as an EMT and personally owns five ferrets. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Bridget Kuhlman (left), a senior Biology major, of Little Egg Harbor in Ocean County, left, and Kelsey Gamble (right), a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, were in the Best Foot Forward Laboratory to gather data on ferret movement patterns. Kuhlman, said, “It’s a dream come true being able to work with ferrets. It’s getting me ready for vet school,” she said. She works as an EMT and personally owns five ferrets. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

“Given that the earliest mammals and dinosaurs had a forelimb posture not unlike lizards, they are acting as a model to test hypotheses about the transition from sprawling to upright forelimb postures,” said Bonnan.

The fossil record offers scientists a motionless slice of history. Bonnan and his team have turned to optical tracking technology to tell more of the story.

“Our ultimate goal is to realistically model and place constraints on how fossil vertebrates, such as dinosaurs and early mammals, moved their forelimbs,” Bonnan explained.

The team is quantitatively illustrating the motion of modern day reptiles and mammals and using bone shape as a common denominator to make comparisons between their laboratory stand-ins and dinosaurs.

Bonnan’s lifelong desire has been to “reconstruct long-dead animals and breathe life into old bones.”

Step-by-step, his vision is coming to life with the support of colleagues, student researchers and staff within the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

Blending Physics and Biology

To model motion, math and physics come into play. Bonnan’s friend and colleague, Dr. Jason Shulman, joined the team lending his numerical analysis expertise. “Jason Shulman is a big part of why we’re able to do this. Without him, interpreting the data would be difficult at best,” said Bonnan.

Early in the Physics curriculum, students learn to calculate angles and speed, which means that undergraduates are prepared to take part in real research outside of textbook exercises Shulman said.

Sometimes Physics majors wonder why they need to study Biology and vice versa. The animal locomotion research is an example of how the sciences work together. “It’s important for students to understand concepts outside of their field—that’s an important lesson I hope we convey.

The interdisciplinary collaboration is perfect for Physics students,” said Shulman.

Campus-wide Support

The bearded dragons were donated to Bonnan by student Kiersten Stukowski, of Gloucester in Camden County. Scientists rarely have the opportunity to work on a long-term project with the same specimens as they mature explained Bonnan.

Justine Ciraolo, director of Academic Laboratories and Field Facilities, connected Bonnan with her sister, who is loaning her ferrets to the team.

One of our ferrets, "Mocha."

One of our ferrets, “Mocha.” Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

When the reptiles and mammals aren’t in the lab, they are cared for by John Rokita, principal animal health lab technician, who has been instrumental in acquiring specimens for Bonnan.

“None of this would have been possible without the support of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and Stockton’s Institutional Animal Care and Usage Committee. It is rare for undergraduates to get this experience. On every level this is teamwork and everyone has been incredibly helpful,” said Bonnan.

The Student Researchers

Alex Hilbmann, a sophomore Biology major, of West Deptford in Gloucester County, says he’s learned all about lizards while building a foundation to better understand the kinematics (or science of motion) during his independent study. “It wasn’t always easy to get them to run,” he admitted. Hilbmann plans to go on to medical school after Stockton.

Caleb Bayewu, a junior Biochemistry major who’s from Maywood in Bergen County, started out working with rats on the treadmill, but “they didn’t always want to move.” Since he joined the team, he’s witnessed the differences in movement among different species.

Corey Barnes, a senior Biology major, of Seaville in Cape May County, took Comparative Anatomy with Dr. Bonnan, which he says opened up his interest along the evolutionary tree. The research has really illustrated “how different their walking habits are.” Barnes is a veterinary technician at Beach Buddies Animal Hospital in Marmora and hopes to attend veterinary school.

Alex Lauffer, a junior Biology major, of Point Pleasant in Ocean County, has always had an interest in dinosaurs and reptiles. The research project was “right up my alley,” he said. The aspiring veterinary assistant has three snakes, one tarantula, one dog and a pond of koi fish. However, it was in the BFF Lab that he held his first bearded dragon. They are surprisingly calm, he said.

Kieran Tracey, a sophomore Biology major, of Sea Isle City in Cape May County, said, “I’m having a lot of fun working with lizards and watching them run,” and added that the experience is giving him important exposure to research in preparation for medical school. He looks forward to “analyzing how [the data] relates to dinosaurs.”

Bridget Kuhlman, a senior Biology major, of Little Egg Harbor in Ocean County, said, “It’s a dream come true being able to work with ferrets. It’s getting me ready for vet school,” she said. She works as an EMT and personally owns five ferrets.

Bridget Kuhlman (left) and Kelsey Gamble (right) attach tracking beads to the ferret nick-named, "Mocha" as Drs. Bonnan and Shulman look on.

Bridget Kuhlman (left) and Kelsey Gamble (right) attach tracking beads to the ferret nick-named, “Mocha” as Drs. Bonnan and Shulman look on. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Kelsey Gamble, a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, said, “Working with live animals is an interesting experience. It’s a lot different than my anthropology work,” she said. “We are looking at the forelimbs and how they move.” The search for patterns and constructing relationships between form and function blend her Biology and Anthropology interests.

Kelsey Gamble, a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, said, “Working with live animals is an interesting experience. It’s a lot different than my anthropology work,” she said. “We are looking at the forelimbs and how they move.” The search for patterns and constructing relationships between form and function blend her Biology and Anthropology interests. Pictured, she holds a ferret that is taking part in the animal locomotion research project at Stockton College. Photo (c)

Kelsey Gamble, a senior Anthropology and Biology major, of Williamstown in Gloucester County, said, “Working with live animals is an interesting experience. It’s a lot different than my anthropology work,” she said. “We are looking at the forelimbs and how they move.” The search for patterns and constructing relationships between form and function blend her Biology and Anthropology interests. Pictured, she holds a ferret that is taking part in the animal locomotion research project at Stockton College. Photo (c) Susan Allen/ The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Contact:         Susan Allen
                        Office of News & Media Relations
                        Galloway Township, NJ 08205
                        Susan.Allen@stockton.edu
                        (609) 652-4790