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I’m now asked all the time how I’m holding up in light of recent changes in my life, and I have a hard time answering that question, as I am still not sure – except that I am still here, more or less. Over the past year I’ve grown to embrace the notion, reinforced very strongly by my own frequent experiences, that I am disabled (in the medical/legal sense). I’ve had a harder time embracing the idea that I am now part of a minority group (I have strongly accepted that I am a senior, white, male scientist in the upper-middle class; which conflicts with “minority” in every way). Categorization aside, one conclusion I’ve been grappling with is the strong sense that I have been diminished. I can’t think as clearly, my memories are fading and my body is increasingly decrepit in physical and physiological ways that are becoming obvious to me. And yet I struggle to explain these feelings to people. So here I am, writing a blog post that is partly about what it’s like to feel that my personal “glory days” as a human scientist have passed. It’s not very uplifting stuff although there is a surprise of sorts at the end.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10; a medical imaging scan of my disintegrating body, and a cartoon of surgery.

Before I go into my sob story, I should reinforce that there’s not just doom and gloom here. There is a heady, very complex mix of feelings. I’ve still got a great family (save the demise of all of my close relatives from my parental generation and before) and friends. Much of the time I’m still able to smile and have some fun. I’m not a Syrian refugee clinging to life in a tent while the world turns its back on me, or an Indonesian orangutan aloft in a tree watching the forest burn around it while the palm oil plantations spring up in the distance. All is relative. I know my life best and that’s what I blog about, so here is that infinitesimal perspective on life.

At work, I am buoyed by a fantastic team of scientists; some of the best I’ve ever worked with. They churn away at the science while I try to lead them. We’re doing some very hard science lately; some of the most challenging work I’ve been involved in. And my declined health hasn’t helped me to lead them, so sometimes they’ve had to rely on each other for spans of time. It’s not the best analogy but I often feel like we are in the open sea and I am swimming in front of our boat full of precious science, navigating while I barely keep my head above water and they struggle with the oars and their own exhaustion. In real life, it’s seeing their smiling faces and the wonderful science they show me on a regular basis that helps me keep afloat, personally.

Indeed, one take-home message of this post is that, while feel myself diminish, struggling with normal ageing and major new health problems, I see those I mentor grow and I get a vicarious thrill and pride from it. This is something that I know many research scientists experience to varying degrees, and often in conjunction with the too-often-metaphorized(?) experience of parenting and having the joy of seeing one’s offspring mature while one feels old age encroaching. As many research managers witness, I see my team’s collective research expand and build new levels of coolness in our little domain, I get wiser by reflecting on the successes and failures, and one could say I enjoy some credit from my team’s work by navigating our general course of research while they do the daily technical work and I help mentor them through their careers.

But first, a content cat.

But first, a content cat.

At the same time, as my collaborations and range of projects broaden, following my increasingly integrative interests, I see my relative expertise decreasing. It seems a long way now from my postdoc years, just over a decade ago, when I could run most or all of the software and hardware I needed to do the science. I am increasingly uncomfortable with that. However, I still learn new skills and knowledge so I am far from static as a scientist, and I am pushing myself more and more to learn more, wrestling with my age/health-imposed difficulties in learning. Furthermore, as a human being I feel far more aware of the world and the broader issues at stake than ever before (thanks in part to social media, I should add; but also thanks to my curiosity about life beyond my research). Improving my mind is still a goal of mine. The “diminishing” label I apply here is not that fair perhaps, but it’s how I feel about myself and I am sure there is some truth to it. It is the foe I grapple with.

So I get bemused reactions when I’m asked how it’s going and I respond, somewhat glumly, that I’m “hanging in there”. Many know I’m having health problems and tell me they are inspired by how I’ve held up and how well my (team’s) research and science communication and other work seems to be going, from the outside. Indeed, we’re cranking out more papers and surprising amounts of funding (see below) than ever before, so on paper it does look very good. It helps a little to hear those comments of how impressed some friends and colleagues are, but I don’t feel very impressed with myself. I feel lucky to have a great team of scientists and to have a great job in an insanely good laboratory environment, because otherwise things would be very different for me. I’m starkly aware of my privilege and feel vastly fortunate for having it.

My personal experience in work/life doesn’t reflect the joy of “success” that might seem to spring forth from my CV or the image that the outside world might get of me. I’m seesawing back and forth between those intermittent joys (and other happiness that comes from life away from work!) and a sense of hopelessness. I see the grim state of humanity and the broader world, and I look within and see my own decrepitude advancing, and I feel sad. It’s not a clinically manic-depressive seesaw but I can see some similarities when I apply my scientific detachment skills and look at myself from a quasi-objective perspective. I’m not the naïve, “everything is excellent” optimistic grad student I was—I just see flickers of that person these days. Sometimes I like to see him.

Much of the torques applied to the seesaw come from my oscillating health status- I alternate between good and bad days, with hints of a broader weekly rhythm that my physicians and I are still trying to grasp. Those oscillations determine everything for me: I can be bursting with energy and make strong inroads on my “to do” list, or I can be utterly drained and unable to do much more than stare vacantly or maybe fire off some emails to make incremental progress on work. I tend to be lingering somewhere in the middle, with far less vitality on average than I had two or so years ago. I look back on those past years and feel like I am looking up at the peak of my life and career. Time will tell if that’s “true” in some way or not.

Regardless, over the past 18 months there have been huge “valleys” from when I end up in hospital after major epileptic attacks, with a couple of weeks of recovery afterwards. Overall, my capacity to do what I used to be able to do has been halved. At best, I feel like I can operate at maybe 90% of my peak capacity and that never lasts long. Some of this is the inevitable decline that comes with entering one’s mid-forties, but some is a new step-change that has hit me over the past 18+ months since I became an epileptic suffering from tonic-clonic (“grand mal”) seizures every 2-3 months. Why is this suddenly happening and why haven’t the doctors resolved it yet? Well, the short answers are that my brain had damage (I told that story here) that can lead to epilepsy later in life, and that medicine still isn’t perfect. Epilepsy that cannot be entirely suppressed by existing medication is still common. We’re still experimenting with medications for me but it’s too soon to tell if we’ve found a solution, and we might never.

I heard some wise words a while ago that “we’re more content to blame ourselves than to accept that some things are beyond our control” and I’ve taken that to heart. Life is scary and short and it’s true that a lot is out of our control, especially the end of life. In reflection, I’ve been tempted to look back on choices I made in life and try to blame myself for what damage that has wrought on me (or others), but in terms of health I question that assumption. I may just be the victim of bad luck (genes, etc), but some people find bad luck too hard to accept, implying an indifferent universe rather than free will leading to misfortune/fortune. I’m not out of hope but I’ve accepted that the current state of my life might be just how it will be, and that’s been a hard lesson, but one I’ve learned again and again with my many chronic health problems over 20+ years. I don’t blame myself (much) for all that. More than ever, I appreciate the other wise words that “everyone is fighting a struggle you know nothing about”. I might look to an external observer like I’m kicking ass, but I feel anything but that kind of triumphant, fist-pumping jubilation.

I feel lucky to still be here, and eager to keep it that way, but I am so, so tired. Intellectually, physically, emotionally, it’s like a vampire has been paying me regular visits. And so I have to sigh, more than I used to, when confronted with bullshit like excessive paperwork or petty politics or something else I wish I didn’t have to endure, deeply feeling life slipping past as I do endure it, but that’s life for you. And at work, as a senior research manager, that’s often my job to endure it, in ways I’d never experienced as a junior researcher. I just have to cope with being pummelled by waves of difficulties and not grow weaker if I can avoid it. Coupled with life’s other burdens, the diminishing scientist faces a different beast of challenges and can often feel very alone. It’s a strange new place I’ve found myself in, far more complex than the worries I had as a postdoc, with harder choices to make and vast grey areas to traverse.

Nonetheless, as welfare science likes to term it, it’s entirely “a life worth living”. I have to pick my battles more than I used to, and I’ve had to learn to take more time to get exercise, rest, and avoid the stresses (or even unpleasant people) that can cause my health to take rapid downward spirals. I’m more fragile in many ways, such as having to stop doing karate because my shoulders have weakened. Here’s some interesting anatomy for you from a recent MRI scan of my right shoulder:

My left shoulder in top cross-sectional view, with the missing parts of my humeral head crudely outlined in red. There's more amiss here, too.

My left shoulder in top cross-sectional view, with the missing parts of my humeral head crudely outlined in red. There’s more amiss here, too.

My seizures cause my shoulder flexors to spasm, raising my arms up and crushing my humerus against my glenoid cavity of my scapula and causing occasional dislocations that abrade the humerus against the rim of the glenoid. The result, after numerous seizures, has been the wearing away of the articular cartilage of my shoulder and then the crumbling of the bony head of my humerus. Thus, once my NHS surgeon is ready to in coming months, I am due to have my coracoid process of my scapula cut off and moved, with its attached muscles and ligaments, to be screwed into the front of my glenoid cavity, bracing my humeral head more tightly against the glenoid and thereby resisting future dislocations. Luckily that operation can be done with several small incisions and endoscopy; invasive as the surgery is; thus recovery time won’t be so long.

Latarjet surgery (view of right shoulder joint [glenoid] from front): coracoid process moved posteroventrally. More details (w/videos) here.

Latarjet surgery (view of right shoulder joint [glenoid] from front): coracoid process moved posteroventrally. More details (w/videos) here.

It amuses me that all of this intense surgery looming on the horizon doesn’t worry me. I just want it done. I’ve been through a comparable surgery with my left shoulder, involving screwing my greater tuberosity back onto my humerus, so I know what recovery is like, and now that shoulder is doing fine. All that aside, my physical integrity has declined and I feel it every day. I may never return to my karate classes and earn that black belt I was seeking as a life-goal, but time will tell. I am trying to do what I can to remain as strong as I can for as long as I can.

A year from now all of my major funding and most or all of my research team were due to finish or be finishing. Over the past year, I was thinking forward to this eventuality and truly looking forward to having a smaller, quieter team, with less pressures on me. Many of those pressures are self-imposed because I am still ambitious and love doing science. I can still feel that youthful passion welling up inside me sometimes, so strong that I imagine it to be a tidal wave that could consume the world. It fuels my drive to try to do more, better science, but is dampened now by the problems I’ve lamented above, but it’s still there. So that passion and drive led me to, on a whim, resubmit an EU grant that was rejected a couple of years ago. I didn’t take it super seriously and so writing the grant didn’t stress me out. But a week after submitting it, I was back in hospital anyway, in bad shape. Over the following nine months, I grew to hope that the grant wasn’t awarded and expected that it wouldn’t (given <20% funding rate especially as a young Advanced Investigator in that ERC funding programme; https://goo.gl/Ps0Rhd if you want to know what that means). A big part of me still wanted to have that smaller team and less (or no) funding. I’d even contemplated leaving academia. I dream sometimes of retiring early to a quiet life with my family or wandering off into some jungle for a foolish adventure, but neither is realistic.

Yet a few weeks ago, the email from the EU came with an answer. I got the grant: 2.5 million Euros for 5 years of research on dinosaur evolution and biomechanics. More about that later. The funding details are still in negotiation but I now am on course to be advertising (in ~August) 4 new jobs to work with me for up to 5 years on this project, beginning in October. My reaction has puzzled those colleagues I’ve told about the grant, although I have kept that news quiet (until now) while I finish the paperwork for the grant award. I feel mixed about getting a large grant at this time in my life. It’s a helluva lot of work and five years seems a very, very long time to me, and to focus on one major theme—and to study dinosaurs.

I had also looked forward to moving away from dinosaur research—but, like Al says in the video above, their siren call can drag us back to the Mesozoic era with questions that entice us and with spectacular fossils that are a riot of fun to study. In this case, we’re going to be looking back on the “locomotor superiority” hypothesis that has been bounced around for >40 years as a possible explanation for why dinosaurs flourished whereas other archosaurs (except crocodylomorphs) didn’t, and how much bipedality relates to that, in terms of various behaviours and motions. Can these questions even be answered? We shall see.

Yes, boo hoo! Poor me, getting a coveted grant and all that! I am not surprised if that is hard for others to understand, and I still am figuring out how I feel about it all. Professionally, this is a wonderful thing; no question. Personally, it’s pressure I didn’t need to put my disabled, diminished self through. Irony and conundrum aside, I want to do it and I should try. Regardless, off I go, with a new-team-to-come and my research focus dominated by one main project, the largest grant I’ve ever managed (by a long shot!). It’s interesting times for me ahead. Life has come full circle, returning me back to science-ing the dinosaurs/archosaurs I’d focused on in my PhD work. But I am not the same person, and so it will be a very different experience. Somehow I have to balance this challenging project with the struggles in my life in general, and that will test me in diverse ways. I’m sure there will be many surprises in my work and personal life during the next five years, and I’ll be sharing them here on this blog when I can.

I’ve tried to express my own journey through the big ups and downs I’ve seen over two years. Maybe it will help others who are quietly, or noisily, struggling. I’m curious to hear from others that have experienced feelings of themselves declining as their careers/lives (in science/elsewhere) move along in some direction.

20151026_153836

Goodbye Pedro (?/?/2014-23/4/2016). We had too little time together. What we shared was so lovely. Parting has been terrible sorrow.

Why

I had a nice chat today (OK, a while ago, when I first started writing this post) with a researcher who wanted to know why I blogged and how I balanced my science communication work with my research activities. In talking with her, I realized that there was a way to explain my views that I hadn’t thought of before and then I realized that this might make a blog post that other people would care to read. So here it is.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10. Just vomiting out words.

I’ll take a historical perspective to answering why I bother doing what I do, and how I came to do it.  As an evolutionary biologist, and as a teacher and communicator, I find that this kind of narrative works for me and for others, in deepening comprehension of why things are the way they are. In my pre-college and college years, I loved to read and write, and I liked science. A professor as a father, a mother who encouraged scholarship and a family that liked to go experience nature together helped. I eventually got competent at writing and maintained that ability (even musing about whether I might become a Hollywood screenwriter– bullet dodged?), whilst figuring out that some sort of biology might be right for my career. Off to college I went.

Amidst the beer-fuelled haze of undergrad life at the U Wisconsin, I fell in love with the science writings of Stephen Jay Gould and some others, which today would be blog posts. A course in the history of science and a lot of courses in biology shaped my interests, and to cut that story short, off to grad school I went in 1995. I’d discovered the internet (on my dad’s iMac) while recovering from some major health problems, and liked it. I learned to love it during my PhD work, participating in a lot of arguing on the Dinosaur email listserver and other kinds of online writing.

In particular, I fell in with the crew of grad students writing pages for the UCMP website— the original online virtual museum. These pages, intended as “virtual exhibits”, were more or less blog posts, or wikipedia-esque entries, or whatever you want to call them in modern parlance. They were reviews of and commentaries on current knowledge on various topics in biology/palaeontology. I now realize that even back then I was an avid science communicator, especially online. I now realize that this hasn’t truly changed in 20 years, except how I do that online communication.

I lacked the self-confidence (or experience) to do much science communication in person, preferring to take the time to slowly write posts/pages online while in hermitage in the museum basement’s computer lab or at our lab’s office computer. Oral presentations utterly terrified me (sometimes to the point of paralysis) until late in grad school once I’d had some practice doing them at seminars and conferences, then I started to love talking about science in person to larger groups (teaching undergrads helped build this love, too). My work began to attract the attention of the media, especially in 2001-2003 during my postdoc at Stanford once my T. rex and elephant biomechanics research got published, and that attention helped train me (through some great mentors’ help) to be better at reaching and engaging with the public via the media.

By 2003 I was a faculty member and my science communication activity continued, even expanding as I became more well-known. Yet my online “scicomm” presence was by this point reduced essentially to only my personal RVC webpages (with several stories about my research that were akin to blog posts) and occasional journalists’ stories about my research. I focused on being a “typical” scientist. That worked for me; I was happy with it.

Finally, in ~2010 I started to catch the online science communication bug again, inspired by bloggers and science writers (and scientists) like Darren Naish (Tetrapod Zoology) and informal chats with colleagues who were experimenting with the newer forms of communication, which were far more engaging than prior forms like the static, non-interactive webpages I’d worked on at the UCMP. And so here I am; see the “Welcome” tab for how this blog originated.

Why then do I continue with this and how to I find whatever balance exists between scicomm and research? First off, I don’t like to think too much about categorizing what I’m doing. It’s all science (writ large) to me, whether I am doing computer analysis or dissections or writing papers or training people or writing blog posts or tweeting. There is a “zero-sum game” that people obsess about in balancing scicomm “versus” research. Yes, it’s true: there are just 24 hours in a day, and to be a successful scientist one must spend some of those hours, on average, on research. Wow. But as long as the research is moving forward at a pace I’m happy with, I don’t care if it took me an average of 6.5 or 8 hours/day to get my part done, or how that time precisely was spent. I don’t think I ever have cared. I don’t do hours-accounting to ensure that I am clocking in and out the “correct” number of hours. I hate that shit and it’s why I didn’t go into a job where I must clock in and out. Lack of freedom suffocates me, and I think that the zero-sum mentality suffocates science.

Similarly, I don’t feel that some vital opportunity is lost by spending time on scicomm rather than research data. I’m sure that, over the years, I’ve “lost” a paper or two that I could have written instead of doing some blogging or other scicomm, but I have enjoyed the latter and others have too, so I feel that it has been more than worth whatever “cost” there has been. If some scientists feel that essentially all they should be doing in science/life is publishing peer-reviewed papers, that’s their opinion but it is not mine. But — I don’t consider that my blog posts are equivalent to peer-reviewed papers by any means, either. I list my blog on my CV as one line, not all of my blog posts like I do for my papers. It is far harder to publish a scientific paper than to write a blog post; there is no equivalency, at present.

Yet on the flip side, blogging is valuable and fills a gap that scientific papers cannot. Once I became a Professor in 2011, I felt even more liberated than when I got tenure. I felt that it was time for me to try new things and take risks, that this was what being a professor was partly about. So I looked around at opportunities and, reflecting on my experiences with documentaries like “Inside Nature’s Giants” and various conversations I’d had in person and on social media (mainly Twitter), I tried blogging. I saw opportunities to engage a broader audience in discussions about anatomy, and I wanted an outlet in which to be creative as a writer and scientist, so blogging fit me. In a blog like this, I can be human, I can talk about myself or others in a personal, less detached and dry way, I can make very speculative statements, I don’t have to reference everything or obsessively avoid any sloppiness, I can be casual, I can be longwinded (like this post), whatever — I can do what the fuck I please, including say “fuck”. I can write posts on anything I want and it doesn’t have to be a novel contribution nor do I have to “sell” it in ways that I might with papers. Try those things in a peer-reviewed publication. Research papers are straight-jacketed by rules because that constrained format has worked for them over the past two centuries. It works for transmitting carefully-checked results that assemble a body of increasingly-trusted knowledge.

I like the release that blogging gives me, to be intellectual in a more creative, explorative, personal, conversational way. This freedom is healthy and rewarding for me, I’ve found, giving me a satisfaction that I can’t get from just grinding away at papers, by engaging with the broader, (potentially) global public rather than just a few specialists — or just a few local people at public science events. Let’s face it, a lot of our peer-reviewed publications don’t matter much; they won’t get cited much and might eventually get forgotten, and even those few specialists that do care about them might not care that much. What matters to me is how I feel about how I am spending my life. I do passionately love discovering new things in my research but science doesn’t start and end there for me. Much like with social media, I’ve benefited from things (some unexpected) like new collaborations, meeting scientists/journalists/science-enthusiasts who become new friends, invitations to do new things like give seminars or take part in bigger media (documentaries, major websites, etc.), being seen as an expert by a broader audience, a stronger and more diverse CV (including positive comments on reviews for funding/other applications), improved writing/communication skills and more. Hence it would be false to say that I lose something by not spending all my time on conventional science. I gain other things from blogging and other scicomm that have their merits, and in the end only one thing matters: does it feel worth it to me? Yes. Do I think that everyone must/should do the same? No. To each their own, but more scientists should consider broadening their scicomm horizons, giving the potential benefits more thought in the weighing of all the priorities that they must juggle. Some people aren’t ready to add scicomm to their repertoire. Some just aren’t suited to it at all. That’s fine. It’s part of the diversity of science. Not everyone can be part of the same conversations and experiences.

To me (like so many in scicomm), whether it is papers or blog posts, it’s all about conversations. These formats of conversations have the same intent: to share and discuss. Indeed, they have much in common, formatting and rules aside. That’s why I like in-person interactions, or seminars and conferences, or social media, or other forms of conversation, too. Each has its pros and cons, and except for social media scientists have been doing them for centuries. One could consider social media/blogging to have been around for 20+ years depending on how one defines it. I’ve realized that I’ve been engaging in conversations over the internet in analogous ways for those decades, and that blogging is not that new for me after all. I see myself as taking a break from the UCMP webpage-writing in by 2001 to returning to public online scicomm in 2010-11, with Facebook acting as a midwife for that transition. Posting science stuff on Facebook to a few hundred friends (ten of whom might show signs of caring) just wasn’t enough for me by ~2011. Since then, I’ve found that the diversity of the world that I can engage with in all these conversations expands my horizons and teaches me new things about science (e.g. other fields I don’t know much about) and about people (e.g. other scientists/science-enthusiasts/journalists I hadn’t met), or even changes the way I look at my own research (e.g. major trends in open access, open data, etc.). This is another major benefit that I wouldn’t get from isolation in an ivory tower. All of these things are echo chambers, whether one is in isolation in the research field of evolutionary biomechanics or the larger area of scicomm that this blog explores, or scicomm on Twitter, or whatever. Mindfulness of that reality can help prevent one’s mind from becoming too full of those echoes and losing sight of the broader world, and I try to be mindful.

I’ve discovered that I like to share, that this is a big part of my personality. I had suppressed some of that side of myself in the early 2000s, developing trust issues that I see in many other scientists today. I imagined things like: if I share, what if someone criticizes me, or I say something wrong and get embarrassed, or someone steals my data/ideas, or someone doesn’t like how I seem to be spending my time, or something else goes wrong. These imagined risks came from stories I’d heard about naughty colleagues and other people, and things I’d experienced myself, some of which were very unpleasant (e.g. colleagues trying to use me, or taking my data or ideas; or people just being jerks). I focused on the negative aspects of sharing but didn’t thoughtfully weigh them against the positive. I now see what I had missed, although things worked out well for me anyway and I don’t deeply have regrets about what I didn’t do prior to 2010-11. I was more selfish, true, and that was strategic selfishness (focus on my research career) as well as irrational selfishness (avoid things that scared me as risky), and there are other things about me back then that I don’t like (e.g. more competitive, less helpful/collegial; which tends to come with secretiveness/lack of sharing) but I don’t beat myself up about them. I could have been much worse, and what matters now is the choices I make now, which I think about much more carefully than I did back then, with the benefit of wisdom gained through successes, failures and mistakes.

Similarly, I don’t like to harangue myself about whether I am doing “work” or “life” stuff. I’m not a fan of this dichotomy. It is an unfair attitude to force upon oneself, in my opinion. “Work vs. life” is set up to impose self-flagellation for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. I believe in work-life integration, just as I believe in research-scicomm integration in science. I do what I need and want to do when it feels right to do those things. The ultimate goals are what matter most; I want a good life in all facets, including making the lives of those around me good, too. I seek happiness and enjoyment and satisfaction, and do what feels like it will best bring me those things at any moment, depending on how I feel. Sometimes I have energy inside that feels best directed toward writing a blog post. Sometimes I’m more excited about a paper. Or a movie, or a cuddle with cats, or whatever. Generally my #1 job priority (as a senior mentor to numerous people) is to help my team get its work done and published (see my prior posts on managing teams), and whatever other time remains when I feel like working is spent on other things, like my own research or scicomm or whatever. I try to avoid guilt-bludgeoning myself about whether I am working or “living” at 06:00 or 10:45 or on Sunday or Wednesday. But I do bother myself about ensuring I have time with my family and friends, which brings many flavours of happiness and enjoyment and satisfaction that science cannot. I don’t believe in working that much on weekends (but I do dabble sometimes, and I don’t overly guilt-trip myself if I do) and I do want to take time off after 5pm most nights with family, and I do need 7-8 hours of sleep or I’m extra grumpy and low on my science-fu levels. I’m happy with my work-life integration, and it seems to be playing out OK as long as I manage my stress levels and physical fitness.

In summary, to me blogging is part of the balance that I try to seek in life, and that balance is deeply personal, ever-changing, and enjoyable to me. There will never be a right answer to the question of what balance is “right” for any one person, but there is a threshold of contentment that can be reached in seeking that balance, and if one reaches that, then that’s good. There will be people that try to tell you that the balance you seek is wrong, and some of them will be worth listening to but others are best ignored or told to piss off. That doesn’t mean that you won’t have to convince people that your balance is “right” for you, whether it is your family or your peers or grant funding committees. I’m fortunate that experiences in terms of people criticizing my time spent blogging have been minimal for me (I know this is not true for plenty of others!), yet I feel well-prepared to defend my blogging interests if I’d have to.

But concurrently there is a question of trust: shouldn’t those parties evaluating your life-balance be accountable for trusting you to make your own decisions, and questioning whether the standards-of-balance they hold as ideal should apply to you or not? This will always be a source of some tension with some people—and maybe it should be, but it has to be, because we are not all the same people living the same life. Maybe it’s easier “just” to focus on cranking out data and papers and not doing much else in science, much like it might be (or seem) easier “just” to blog 100% of one’s time. Maybe there’s jealousy or insecurity or fear of change that wells up in those that do find a certain, seemingly simple, set of priorities to be the right balance for them in their life, but don’t like to see others seeking a different kind of balance. Keeping more balls in the air in juggling life’s balance ramps up the complexity and that can be more difficult to control; more unstable, even. All of these questions of priorities, trust and balance arise from our humanity and our diversity and present us with frequent choices about how to handle them. I’d like to end this post on a more positive note by suggesting that we celebrate these questions, and by doing so that we celebrate our diversity and humanity and become part of the dynamic kaleidoscope of science and the real world. Maybe we should worry less about judging how others balance their lives; lives whose details we probably know little about; and push ourselves to learn something from our fellow scientists and science enthusiasts by seeking to understand how they’ve arrived at the point in life that they’re at, and seeking to build edifices of trust that there are many ways to contribute to science. We might learn new things that could inspire us to change our own priorities, much as I did in my life journey that led to this blog’s inception. There is a lot of common ground to roam in discussions about balance in the lives of those passionate about science. Curiosity and trust are key components of that ground’s bedrock, like they are of science’s. Discovery and sharing are other parts, in which research and scicomm play important, interactive roles.

I’m curious to hear what others think of things I’ve raised in this post about why I’ve struck the current balance I’ve made in my life (particularly regarding blogging but similarly extensible to social media), and how that relates to the many ways that others can find balance, which might lead to more harmony between research and scicomm in science. Kumbaya?

Anatomy of an amoeba: why not? I like it.

Anatomy of an amoeba: why not? I like it.

Well I made it this far, and I might not have expected to last four years of blogging but I did last, and I’m very glad. Here is my customary retrospective with some “new” images. I’m glad to see that you’re still here, too: over 3200 blog subscribers (roughly doubled since 2014?) and some regular commenters remain– thank you! Like an undead horror, this blog keeps lurching forward, and it appreciates loyalty.

rick-what-sm

 Stomach-Churning Rating: 5/10- there’s a bit of blood and stuff. Nothing that unusual. If you’re like Rick (above; by /u/epicolllie), that won’t phase you by now.

The past year on the #JohnsFreezer blog felt quiet to me, and that’s largely because I was distracted by numerous things; if you know me (or follow my whining on Twitter), you probably can guess. But there were enough highlights to keep me feeling satisfied. Judging from your reactions, you liked my inside scoop on the T. rex Autopsy documentary that I consulted on, and a distant second place post was, hmm, that’s kinda surprising: my elephant foot dissection post. I’m rather pleased so many of you clicked on that one, actually. That’s a meat-and-potatoes post for this blog, much like my latest one on getting to know M. caudofemoralis (longus). But hey, check out the “Goat to be Seen” post if those are your kind of entries– it seems a lot of people missed that one, and it had a mix of quirkiness, unflinching raw anatomy, and art that still makes me smile.

I was browsing my photos and ran across this NHMUK exhibit of a small ungulate hooved limb vs. a nice honking big padded elephant foot. It elegantly gets across the biomechanical differences between these limb structures.

I was browsing my photos and ran across this NHMUK exhibit of a small ungulate hooved limb vs. a nice honking big padded elephant foot (both abstracted down to their fundamentals). It elegantly gets across the biomechanical differences between these limb structures. Bravo!

My rants about how sometimes it’s helpful for scientists to put the brakes on media coverage of their own research, and on “HONCOs” (honorary co-authors), also brought in the punters, as did the re-post about the not-so-bad aspects of self-promotion in science. Not so many people appeared to read the post about where ideas come from in science but it got a lot of tweets, which is a strange incongruity, yet my thoughts on how to manage a research team didn’t do any better (but if you read in between the lines, there’s a poignancy to that post). Anyway: good ole rants; ahh, it still feels good to have those off my chest, even after all these months. And writing them helps me sort out my own thoughts, if nothing else.

Hindlimb of a sea turtle that we dissected in 2015 after it came in for a clinical postmortem.

Hindlimb of a sea turtle that we dissected in 2015 after it came in for a clinical postmortem.

One of my greatest science heroes, “Neill” Alexander, got his due here, and there continue to be comments trickling in on that post from people who are reminiscing about his influence on their careers. That is definitely one of the posts on this blog that I feel best about, even after four years. It meant a lot to me, much as Neill has meant a lot to others. I also did an homage to museums, which in parallel (oddly, but enjoyably for me) became an(other) homage to avian kneecaps. I like them too, and museums of course, but they’re awesome in a very different way from Neill.

Team Cat is still cranking on our biomechanical and anatomical studies of felids- expect a lot of new stuff from us in 2016! Meanwhile, enjoy this spectacular taxidermy.

Team Cat is still cranking on our biomechanical and anatomical studies of felids- expect a lot of new stuff from us in 2016! Meanwhile, enjoy this spectacular taxidermy– and check out Dr. Andrew Cuff’s blog with the latest science and stories.

I learned a lot about my genome in this fourth year of blogging, and I delved into that with you, as part of my commitment to share what I learn about myself by poking around in my biology. Oh, and I just learned that the image depicting my genomic ancestry was this blog’s most-clicked image this year– that’s cool, and unexpected!

The past year was a big year for dinosaurs on this blog, with a post on the “Giant Dinosaurs of London” and another related to my cameo in the giant titanosaur documentary with Attenborough, but with a focus on dissecting dinosaurs, and a blatant bandwagon tribute to/musing on Jurassic World.

The very, very strange iguanodontian dinosaur Lurdusaurus (forelimb; note the big spiky thumb claw), which I was pleased to see at the natural history museum in Brussels, Belgium in 2015.

The very, very strange iguanodontian dinosaur Lurdusaurus (forelimb; note the big spiky thumb claw), which I was pleased to see at the natural history museum in Brussels, Belgium in 2015.

And finally, this blog had a baby, or a sister, or whatever, this year, and that has been a blast: Anatomy to You was born, thanks to Dr. Lauren Sumner-Rooney’s expert care and dedication to science communication. If you haven’t checked it out, now’s a good time, or offer to do a guest post for our “In Focus” section if you’ve got some anatomical science to share! Speaking of guest posts, Julia Molnar did a fabulous one about our paper on crocodile backbones this year, here on this blog.

I'm still cleaning up specimens from the freezers: here, some "emu butts" (tails) from a collaboration with Michael Pittman and Heinrich Mallison, and PhD student Luis Lama's past thesis work.

I’m still cleaning up specimens from the freezers: here, some “emu butts” (tails) from a collaboration with Michael Pittman and Heinrich Mallison, and PhD student Luis Lama’s past work. Something about these vertebrae fascinates me.

I didn’t deliver on some plans for this year, such as a komodo dragon anatomy post, but I did finally do the “better know a muscle” and “dissecting dinosaurs” posts I planned, and a few other things, so the year worked out well enough.

What’s coming in year 5 of this blog? I have no bloody idea; I have not gotten that far. I think we’ll all be surprised. Let’s make the most of it! (I will consider requests)

"We'll always have elaborate models of gorilla muscular anatomy in Paris."

“We’ll always have elaborate models of gorilla muscular anatomy in Paris.”

 

 

Happy Darwin Day from the frozen tundra sunny but muddy, frosty lands of England! I bring you limb muscles as peace offerings on this auspicious day. Lots of limb muscles. And a new theme for future blog posts to follow up on: starting off my “Better Know A Muscle” (nod to Stephen Colbert; alternative link) series. My BKAM series intends to walk through the evolutionary history of the coolest (skeletal/striated) muscles. Chuck Darwin would not enjoy the inevitable blood in this photo-tour, but hopefully he’d like the evolution. Off we go, in search of better knowledge via an evolutionary perspective!

There is, inarguably, no cooler muscle than M. caudofemoralis longus, or CFL for short. It includes the largest limb muscles of any land animal, and it’s a strange muscle that confused anatomists for many years– was it a muscle of the body (an axial or “extrinsic” limb muscle, directly related to the segmented vertebral column) or of the limbs (an “abaxial” muscle, developing with the other limb muscles from specific regions of the paraxial mesoderm/myotome, not branching off from the axial muscles)? Developmental biologists and anatomists answered that conclusively over the past century: the CFL is a limb muscle, not some muscle that lost its way from the vertebral column and ended up stranded on the hindlimb.

The CFL is also a muscle that we know a fair amount about in terms of its fossil record and function, as you may know if you’re a dinosaur fan, and as I will quickly review later. We know enough about it that we can even dare to speculate if organisms on other planets would have it. Well, sort of…

Stomach-Churning Rating: 8/10. Lots of meaty, bloody, gooey goodness, on and on, for numerous species. This is an anatomy post for those with an appetite for raw morphology.

Let’s start from a strong (and non-gooey) vantage point, to which we shall return. The CFL in crocodiles and most other groups is (and long was) a large muscle extending from much of the front half or so of the tail to the back of the femur (thigh bone), as shown here:

Julia Molnar's fabulous illustration of Alligator's limb muscles, from our 2014 paper in Journal of Anatomy.

Julia Molnar’s fabulous illustration of Alligator‘s limb muscles, from our 2014 paper in Journal of Anatomy. Note the CFL in blue at the bottom right.

As the drawing shows, the CFL has a friend: the CFB. The CFB is a shorter, stumpier version of the CFL restricted to the tail’s base, near the hip. The “B” in its name means “brevis”, or runty. It gets much less respect than its friend the CFL. Pity the poor CFB.

But look closer at the CFL in the drawing above and you’ll see a thin blue tendon extending past the knee to the outer side of the lower leg. This is the famed(?) “tendon of Sutton“, or secondary tendon of the CFL. So the CFL has two insertions, one on the femur and one (indirectly) onto the shank. More about that later.

Together, we can talk about these two muscles (CFL and CFB) as the caudofemoralis (CF) group, and the name is nice because it describes how they run from the tail (“caudo”) to the femur (“femoralis”). Mammal anatomists were late to this party and gave mammal muscles stupidly unhelpful names like “gluteus” or “vastus” or “babalooey”. Thanks.

But enough abstract drawings, even if they rock, and enough nomenclature. Here is the whopping big CFL muscle of a real crocodile:

Huge Nile crocodile, but a relatively small CFL.

Huge Nile crocodile, but a relatively small CFL.

Bigger crocs have smaller legs and muscles.

Bigger crocs have smaller legs and thus smaller leg muscles, relatively speaking. CFL at the top, curving to the left.

The giant Nile croc's CFL muscle removed for measurements.

The giant Nile croc’s CFL muscle removed for measurements. 2.35 kg of muscle! Not shabby for a 278 kg animal.

However, maybe crocodile and other archosaur CFL muscles are not “average” for leggy vertebrates? We can’t tell unless we take an evolutionary tack to the question.

Where did the CFL come from, you may ask? Ahh, that is shrouded in the fin-limb transition‘s mysteries. Living amphibians such as salamanders have at least one CF muscle, so a clear predecessor to the CFL (and maybe CFB) was present before reptiles scampered onto the scene.

But going further back through the CF muscles’ history, into lobe-finned fish, becomes very hard because those fish (today) have so few fin muscles that, in our distant fishy ancestors, would have given rise eventually to the CF and other muscle groups. With many land animals having 30+ hindlimb muscles, and fish having 2-8 or so, there obviously was an increase in the number of muscles as limbs evolved from fins. And because a limb has to do lots of difficult three-dimensional things on land while coping with gravity, more muscles to enable that complex control surely were needed.

OK, so there were CF muscles early in tetrapod history, presumably, anchored on that big, round fleshy tail that they evolved from their thin, finned fishy one — but what happened next? Lizards give us some clues, and their CFL muscles aren’t all that different from crocodiles, so the CFL’s massive size and secondary “tendon of Sutton” seems to be a reptile thing, at least.

Courtesy of Emma Schachner, a large varanid lizard's very freshly preserved CFL and other hindlimb muscles.

Courtesy of Emma Schachner, a large varanid lizard’s very freshly preserved CFL and other hindlimb muscles.

Courtesy of Emma Schachner, zoomed in on the tendons and insertions of the CFL muscle and others.

Courtesy of Emma Schachner, zoomed in on the tendons and insertions of the CFL muscle and others. Beautiful anatomy there!

Looking up at the belly of a basilisk lizard and its dissected right leg, with the end of the CFL labelled.

Looking up at the belly of a basilisk lizard and its dissected right leg, with the end of the CFL labelled. It’s not ideally dissected here, but it is present.

An unspecified iguanid(?) lizard, probably a juvenile Iguana iguana, dissected and showing its CFL muscle at its end. The muscle would extemd about halfway down the tail, though.

An unspecified iguanid(?) lizard, probably a juvenile Iguana iguana, dissected to reveal its CFL muscle near its attachment to the femur. The muscle would extend further, about halfway down the tail, though.

Let’s return to crocodiles, for one because they are so flippin’ cool, and for another because they give a segue into archosaurs, especially dinosaurs, and thence birds:

A moderate-sized (45kg) Nile crocodile with its CFL muscle proudly displayed.

A moderate-sized (45kg) Nile crocodile with its CFL muscle proudly displayed. Note the healthy sheath of fat (cut here) around the CFL.

American alligator's CFL dominates the photo. Photo by Vivian Allen.

American alligator’s CFL dominates the photo [by Vivian Allen].

Black caiman, Melanosuchus, showing off its CFL muscle (pink "steak" in the middle of the tail near the leg).

Black caiman, Melanosuchus, showing off its CFL muscle (pink “steak” in the middle of the tail near the leg), underneath all that dark armour and fatty superficial musculature.

A closer look at the black caiman's thigh and CFL muscle.

A closer look at the black caiman’s thigh and CFL muscle.

Like I hinted above, crocodiles (and the anatomy of the CFL they share with lizards and some other tetrapods) open a window into the evolution of unusual tail-to-thigh muscles and locomotor behaviours in tetrapod vertebrates.

Thanks in large part to Steve Gatesy’s groundbreaking work in the 1990s on the CFL muscle, we understand now how it works in living reptiles like crocodiles. It mainly serves to retract the femur (extend the hip joint), drawing the leg backwards. This also helps support the weight of the animal while the foot is on the ground, and power the animal forwards. So we call the CFL a “stance phase muscle”, referring to how it mainly plays a role during ground contact and resisting gravity, rather than swinging the leg forwards (protracting the limb; i.e. as a “swing phase muscle”).

The “tendon of Sutton” probably helps to begin retracting the shank once the thigh has moved forward enough, facilitating the switch from stance to swing phase, but someone really needs to study that question more someday.

And thanks again to that same body of work by Gatesy (and some others too), we also understand how the CFL’s anatomy relates to the underlying anatomy of the skeleton. There is a large space for the CFL to originate from on the bottom of the tail vertebrae, and a honking big crest (the fourth trochanter) on the femur in most reptiles that serves as the major attachment point, from which the thin “tendon of Sutton” extends down past the knee.

Femur bones (left side) from an adult ostrich (Left) and Nile crocodile (Right).

Femur bones (left side; rear view) from an adult ostrich (left) and Nile crocodile (right). Appropriate scale bar is appropriate. The fourth trochanter for the CFL is visible in the crocodile almost midway down the femur. Little is left of it in the ostrich but there is a bumpy little muscle scar in almost the same region as the fourth trochanter, and this is where the same muscle (often called the CFC; but it is basically just a small CFL) attaches.

That relationship of the CFL’s muscular anatomy and the underlying skeleton’s anatomy helps us a lot! Now we can begin to look at extinct relatives of crocodiles; members of the archosaur group that includes dinosaurs (which today we consider to include birds, too), and things get even more interesting! The “tendon of Sutton”, hinted at by a “pendant” part of the fourth trochanter that points down toward the knee, seems to go away multiple times within dinosaurs. Bye bye! Then plenty more happens:

A large duckbill dinosaur's left leg, with a red line drawn in showing roughly where the CFL would be running, to end up at the fourth trochanter. Many Mesozoic dinosaurs have skeletal anatomy that indicates a similar CFL muscle.

A large duckbill dinosaur’s left leg, with a red line drawn in showing roughly where the CFL would be running, to end up at the fourth trochanter. Many Mesozoic dinosaurs have skeletal anatomy that indicates a similar CFL muscle.

We can even go so far as to reconstruct the 3D anatomy of the CFL in a dinosaur such as T. rex ("Sue" specimen here; from Julia Molnar's awesome illustration in our 2011 paper), with a fair degree of confidence.

We can even go so far as to reconstruct the 3D anatomy of the CFL in a dinosaur such as T. rex (“Sue” specimen here; from Julia Molnar’s awesome illustration as part of our 2011 paper), with a fair degree of confidence. >180kg steak, anyone?

As we approach birds along the dinosaur lineage, the tail gets smaller and so does the fourth trochanter and thus so must the CFL muscle, until we’re left with just a little flap of muscle, at best. In concert, the hindlimbs get more crouched, the forelimbs get larger, flight evolves and voila! An explosion of modern bird species!

Ozburt (72)

Left femur of an ostrich in side view (hip is toward the right side) showing many muscles that attach around the knee (on the left), then the thin strap of CF muscle (barely visible; 2nd from the right) clinging near the midshaft of the femur.

Another adult ostrich's CF muscle complex, removed for study.

Another adult ostrich’s CF muscle complex, removed for study. Not enough ostrich myology for you yet? Plenty more in this old post! Or this one! Or this one… hey maybe I need to write less about ostriches? The CF muscle complex looks beefy but it’s no bigger than any other of the main hindlimb muscles, unlike the CFL in a crocodile or lizard, which puts everything else to shame!

STILL not enough ostrich for you yet? Take a tour of the major hindlimb muscles in this video:

And check out the limited mobility of the hip joint/femur here. No need for much femur motion when you’re not using your hip muscles as much to drive you forwards:

But I must move on… to the remainder of avian diversity! In just a few photos… Although the CF muscles are lost in numerous bird species, they tend to hang around and just remain a long, thin, unprepossessing muscle:

Chicken's right leg in side view. CFC (equivalent of CFL) muscle outlined and labelled.

Chicken’s right leg in side view. CFC muscle (equivalent of CFL; the ancestral CFB is confusingly called the CFP in birds, as it entirely resides on the pelvis) outlined and labelled.

A jay (species?) dissected to show some of the major leg muscles, including the CF. Photo by Vivian Allen.

A jay (species? I forget) dissected to show some of the major leg muscles, including the CFL-equivalent muscle; again, smallish. [Photo by Vivian Allen]

Finally, what’s up with mammals‘ tail-to-thigh CF-y muscles? Not much. Again, as in birds: smaller tail and/or femur, smaller CF muscles. Mammals instead depend more on their hamstring and gluteal muscles to support and propel themselves forward.

But many mammals do still have something that is either called the M. caudofemoralis or is likely the same thing, albeit almost always fairly modest in size. This evolutionary reduction of the CF muscle along the mammal (synapsid) lineage hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as that given to the dinosaur/bird lineage’s CFL. Somebody should give it a thoroughly modern phylogenetic what-for! Science the shit outta that caudofemoralis…

Yet, oddly, to give one apparent counter-example, cats (felids) have, probably secondarily, beefed up their CF muscle a bit:

Cats have a pretty large CF muscle in general, and this jaguar is no exception! But mammals still tend to have fairly wimpy tails and thus CF muscles, or they even lose them (e.g. us?).

Cats have a pretty large CF muscle in general, and this jaguar is no exception! But mammals still tend to have fairly wimpy tails and thus CF muscles, or they even lose them (e.g. us?). [photo by Andrew Cuff, I think]

In summary, here’s what happened (click to embeefen):

Better Know A Muscle: The Evolution of M. caudofemoralis (longus)

Better Know A Muscle: the evolution of M. caudofemoralis (longus).

I hope you enjoyed the first BKAM episode!
I am willing to hear requests for future ones… M. pectoralis (major/profundus) is a serious contender.

P.S. It was Freezermas this week! I forgot to mention that. But this post counts as my Freezermas post for 2016; it’s all I can manage. Old Freezermas posts are here.

Tonight is the debut of the ballyhooed BBC1 programme “Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur“, featuring Sir David and The Titanosaur-With-No-Name, at 6:30pm. Furthermore, this week I presided over a showing of “T. rex Autopsy” to our RVC undergrad Zoological Society, with a very enjoyable Q&A afterwards. So it seemed timely for me to do a post about a theme that links these two documentaries that I helped with, my own research, and science communication and palaeontological research more generally. But first let’s get this out of the way:

It was great.

It was great. I could gush more but that’s not what this post is about.

Stomach-Churning Rating: ~7/10; mainly the elephant leg dissection that’s not far below, which is a bit messy.

For the titanosaur documentary with Sir David, and the incomparable Ben Garrod as well, we had an old elephant “friend” of mine (subject of many biomechanics studies we’d done) walk across a pressure pad to demonstrate how the elephant locomotion works and some of the basic similarities with how a giant sauropod dinosaur might walk:

A broader feature of that documentary, which elephants are linked into, is how we can use the skeleton to reconstruct some general aspects of the soft tissue anatomy, and thereby the physiology or even behaviour, of a giant titanosaur. Which brings me to this post’s subject: We dig up dinosaurs all the time, but what about digging into dinosaurs and using what’s preserved to reconstruct what isn’t? 

The "G-suit" compressive stocking that the fascia wrapped around elephant, and other large mammals, creates, and the underlying, interwoven muscles and tendons (hindlimb of a young Asian elephant).

Some of the “G-suit” compressive stocking that the fascia wrapped around elephant, and other large mammals, creates, and the underlying, interwoven muscles and tendons (hindlimb of a young Asian elephant that sadly died in captivity). Did some larger dinosaurs have something like this? I’d expect so.

Another view, more superficially, of that G-suit/stocking under the thick, tight skin of an elephant's leg.

Another view, more superficially, of that G-suit/stocking under the thick, tight skin of an elephant’s leg. You’ll hear more about this in the Attenborough show…

Once the documentary airs, I may be able to share some more images from it showing what they did for the titanosaur, but this BBC photo gives a good idea.

Once the documentary airs, I may be able to share some more images from it showing what they did for the titanosaur, but this BBC photo gives a good idea. Here, blood vessels and other tissues surrounding the skeleton. How would a titanosaur pump blood around its body? A good question.

I’ve covered the science behind these reconstructions before, along with the art (in numerous posts, actually). Here I want to inspect how it’s communicated through the media: what are good (and not so good?) ways to cover it, especially now that displaying raw anatomy is more tolerable on TV and other media? I’m not writing about Thanksgiving dinner dinosaur dissections; not really; or in technical terms how we build a dinosaur to dissect/depict internally (digitally or physically).

I wanted to focus more on the end product; the imagery or even physical object; and how it conveys what we think we know about dinosaur anatomy. I’ll do that via examples, using photos of dinosaur anatomy that I’ve collected over the years from museums or other media. There won’t be any profound points or long musings; it’s mainly a photo blog:

What your (inner?) child most needs is a dinosaur to dissect yourself! Why not a T. rex toy like this?

What your (inner?) child most needs is a dinosaur to dissect yourself! Why not a T. rex toy like this?

I could quibble, but for the price they did a good job.

For the price (~$30 in USA), the 4D Vision dinosaurs deliver a pretty good bargain, and the anatomy is satisfactory. I’ve been collecting this series. I could quibble, but hey: it’s a dinosaur you get to build/dissect yourself, and with many major organs in reasonable positions! Not so easy to put/keep together, but it’s fine. I would not pay a ton for it, though.

Poster of Velociraptor's anatomy I've had since grad school, adorning my office. For ~1996, it's damn good, mostly... (placeholder photos until I get to the office tomorrow and take better ones!)

Poster of Velociraptor’s anatomy I’ve had since grad school, adorning my office. For ~1996 (no feathers; “zombie hands“), it’s damn good, mostly… Closer views below (sorry, photo quality is crap– taking photos of wall poster turned out to be harder than I expected! Bad lighting.) :

Closeup of the leg muscles- hey, not bad!

Closeup of the leg muscles- hey, not bad! Pretty much the right muscles in the right places more or less, and plausible proportions. No air sacs in the torso, but again, this is mid-1990’s science shown. BUT…

I was happy with this poster until I got it home and read this final bit of text... Oh, America! You silly place.

I was happy with this poster until I got it home from the western-USA museum I bought it at and read this final bit of text… Oh, America! You silly place. (And unfortunately, these dinosaurs are not from the very end of the Cretaceous anyway, so “global catastrophe” is not implicated.)

Ornithomimid in Barcelona natural history museum. This was unexpected and got me excited when I first saw it.

Ornithomimid in Barcelona natural history museum. This was unexpected and got me excited when I first saw it.

Looking down onto the opened torso of the Barcelona ornithomimid. Strikingly realistic!

Looking down onto the opened torso of the Barcelona ornithomimid. Strikingly realistic! Breastbone, heart, liver, intestines; not unreasonable positions and sizes. No feathers, but again hey– this was made in the earlier days.

Skinned Albertosaurus from the Drexel Academy of Sciences. I forget where I got this pic but I like the display.

Albertosaurus from the Drexel Academy of Sciences. I forget where I got this pic but I like the display– this is an impressive full-scale physical model. The transition from skeleton-only on the left to skinned in the middle to fully-fleshed and popping out atcha on the right is clever.

?T. rex? leg, photo that I took ages ago as a PhD student, if memory serves. Can anyone remind me where this was? California Academy of Sciences?

?T. rex? leg, photo that I took ages ago as a PhD student, if memory serves. Can anyone remind me where this was? California Academy of Sciences? I am embarrassed that I cannot recall. I remember geeking out about it. It has a toy-ish look, but I reckon they had to build this to withstand kids touching it.

Perhaps the best example I've seen in a museum: the AMNH's sauropod with internal organs and their functions projected onto it. Bravo!

Perhaps the best dino-dissection example I’ve seen in a museum: the AMNH’s sauropod Mamenchisaurus with internal organs and their functions projected onto it, in the “World’s Largest Dinosaurs” exhibit. Bravo! I stood and watched it for quite a while.

This is far from comprehensive– just several kinds of imagery that I mostly like. There’s the tension between showing too much realism, which science simply can’t back up, and being too cartoonish, losing the viewer’s immersion in the time-travelling fantasy. I do, however, like other kinds of more abstract, schematic depictions of dinosaur anatomy that simplify the details to focus on the basics of what organs should have been where and how they may have worked, such as this depiction from T. rex Autopsy, which also took the other extreme favouring ultra-realism (but with physical models, not so much with the CGI):

AIr flow through a T. rex: simplified but clear.

Air flow through a T. rex: simplified but clear. CGI used to explain, not abused. The real air sac anatomy would be too complex to show. You may see something similar with the titanosaur show.

That’s enough for now. I’ve stuck with relatively recent examples; of course in my particular field I also think back to Romer’s wonderful 1920’s drawings, which I covered in this post.

So, blog readers, help me out here: what examples of dinosaur internal, squishy anatomy from museums, documentaries or other not-entirely-done-by-nitpicky-scientists venues do you like, or not like so much? What works for you, or at least is memorable in some way?

I think a lot about where my ideas come from as a researcher and what a “new” idea really is, in addition to the “value” (in any sense) of scientific ideas. As a senior researcher, I find more and more that such evaluations of the merits of ideas are a huge part of my job. And I hear my colleagues talking about similar things all the time. Variably, the reflections and discussions boil down to something like these (falling somewhere in the multi-dimensional space illustrated by two extremes below):

  1. “Study by so-and-so claims that it shows something novel but it’s not; such-and-such said/showed that in year XXXX”, or
  2. “I came up with the idea for the paper/grant and that is the most important thing”.

The above extremes, and perhaps all points in between, could always be debatable. There is no across-the-board, seemingly profound statement that can encompass all possibilities, like the ironically trite “There’s nothing new under the sun”, or vast oversimplification “Ideas are easy to come by; data are hard.”

What is a new idea and what is one worth? Well, yes, that varies in science. I think it’s helpful to dissect these issues separately- the origin and evolution of ideas, and then their currency in science. And so here I will do that. These are not new ideas– even for me; I’ve been sitting on this post since 18 October 2015, waiting for the ideas to coalesce enough to post this!

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10; ruminations, some of which may be blindingly obvious. No images; just a long read.

It’s safe to say, and I know a lot has been written about this in the history and philosophy of science, that almost all “new” ideas in science are incremental. They tend to be little steps forward; not Kuhn-ian revolutions that blindside the community. Fans of Darwin and other science heroes are constantly reminded that even the geniuses’ ideas emerged mostly from the tangled skein of scientific society; coalescing from particles suspended in the scientific group-think. That doesn’t devalue science, as science is still making big strides– by (increasingly?) small, frequent steps across the scholastic landscape (see below).

It’s easy to take a shortcut and say, for example, that evolution was Charles Darwin’s big idea (or give him the lion’s share of credit) when of course that is a huge oversimplification and highly misleading– historical evidence shows beyond question that evolutionary ideas had been bounced around for decades (or centuries) and that Darwin had come across plenty of them, his grandfather Erasmus’s Zoonomia being an obvious one out of many influences. I was recently teaching my main undergrad class about this very topic and it got me thinking more about how, on the more standard scale of us non-genius scientists, ideas always have many common ancestors and lateral transfer of heritable material (to abuse the evolutionary metaphor). Saltationism/macromutation of ideas is rare, hence precious when it truly does happen. But hybridization (multidisciplinary syntheses; integrative science; all the rage these days– usually for good reasons) is a powerful force, probably today more than ever in science, able to generate and tackle big ideas.

It’s just as easy to default to the breathless “Wow, everything is new!” shortcut. The 24-hour news cycle takes a regular tongue-lashing from scientists and other science communicators from taking this shortcut too often. We might more reflexively forgive that cycle in the breath after cursing it, because memories and attention spans are short, hectic lives are only a bit longer, and thus in the latest science news story the headline or ~500-word article can’t regale us with the entire, nuanced history of a subject *and* explain within those tight constraints what incremental advance has been made, with due credit to all antecedents. Would we prefer less science news coverage overall, to save that breathlessness for the rare occasion when it is truly deserved? Or just more boring, toned-down, long-winded coverage (cough, this post, cough?) that attracts less interest in science overall? I’d be wary of such arguments.

Scientific journal articles, too, are becoming more complex because of the increasingly specialized, technical nature of many fields that have benefited from prior scientific advances. Online journal formats are helping to loosen the noose of word limits on those articles. But good mentors (and reviewers, and editors) remind young (and all other) scientists that overly long papers will raise the risk of fewer people reading them or spotting key phrases buried in them. “Moderation in all things.” Usually. “Exceptions to all things”, too, I admit– sometimes long papers are great!

Furthermore, much as journalists can’t cover, or be familiar with, the whole history of a field, so it is becoming harder even for specialists to follow scientific progress within a specialized field. Open access to literature and online papers or emailed pdfs are helping, with even many very old classic papers becoming digitized. Yet then while you’re reading through some of the old literature you’d missed, and doing teaching and research and admin and other tasks that life as a scientist demands of you, new papers are popping up. You see some of them, and others get missed because there are too many papers getting published to follow them all, and because there are so many journals (many of the online ones being very generalist, so a paper on a given topic could appear anywhere), and even the best literature-searching tools don’t find everything. Patience, to a degree, in tolerating missed references is thus important, although it can help to point them out diplomatically.

I find it exasperating trying to keep up with the fields I work in. Seriously, I frequently look at my folders of papers “to read” and I think “*@$*! I’ll never read all that now!” Ten years ago it was different. I felt like I could, and I think I mostly did, keep up with my interests. Furthermore, I care about reading others’ research. I love reading science and I feel proud to keep up with a topic, knowing that I’m doing my scholastic duty. I want to learn what others have learned, both in the far past and far-flung countries and in the recent cutting-edge studies. I have gotten where I am from doing that– the literature routinely inspires me to take new directions in research and many of my best papers/grants/projects have come directly from that inspiration. I worry that I am missing opportunities for new ideas by not reading all of the old ones. But no one can do everything.

Aha! I have reached one of my points! The literature is there to show us the way; show us where the knowns and unknowns are in science. The peaks of knowledge where science has climbed to new heights of understanding! The valleys of ignorance where a bit of research effort or luck might get you far in making “new” discoveries! Or you can slog it on the slopes and try to conquer the peaks on that scholastic landscape (Sewall Wright fans, take note); show that your disciplinary Mt. Everest is taller than anyone thought it was. We all have our favoured routes as researchers. The point is to discover something “new” to science. It is all new, if it is worth doing, as a scientific researcher. And maybe 99.99% of that newness ascends from base-camps on older, lower landscapes.

But there is new (tiny steps), and then there is NEW (quantum leaps), and we must be wary of that’s-not-even-new-at-all (previously charted territory, or even plagiarism). The aspect of “new”-ness here that interests me is the subjective judgement we make in assessing that originality. As an example from my own research in vertebrate palaeontology, I’ve published around 12 papers that orbit the topic of whether a big theropod dinosaur such as Tyrannosaurus rex could run quickly if at all. This all began with my 2002 paper in Nature, which at the time was a “new” application in palaeontology of methods that were well over 30 years old then (inverse dynamics analysis of musculoskeletal mechanics), and owed a lot to simpler approaches by RMcNeill Alexander and others, but probably was published (and gained me some notoriety/infamy) because it answered a tough question in a clever, basic and reproducible way.

My (and coauthors’) papers in 2004, 2005, 2007 and onwards fleshed out this topic more and showed some of the nuances overlooked in that 2002 study. They were all “new”, even though that question “Was T. rex a fast runner?” was gradually beaten to death by them to the point where even I am tired of it now, although I can still see areas where I’m not satisfied with my own answers. I guess the 2002 paper was NEW in its own moderate way and the later papers, even though some of them were much fancier (e.g. using 3D imaging and cutting edge computer modelling; not just simple equations and sketches), were incrementally new in terms of the answers they gave, even if methodologically NEW-ish. We could debate the finer details of the “new-ness” there until the heat death of the universe, but I doubt it would be of more than of very niche (read: tediously nerdy and semantic/subjective) interest. Debating whether something is new or not quickly gets boring. It’s a dull criticism to level at a new study, because most studies (at least in my field) are conducted and published for a good reason and probably are new in some way; the ways they are not new are far less interesting. It’s maybe even harder to accurately delineate the “new-ness” of a study than it is to berate it for its old-ness; the latter is the knee-jerk retort too often on social media, perhaps, and easily fuelled by scientific self esteem issues.

Returning to point 1 above, then, sure. That study in year XXXX by so-and-so probably does have some relationship to the latest studies in a related field. And it behooves us as scholars to be aware of those homologies and homoplasies that are the history of any scientific discipline’s intellectual evolution. But giving the authors or the news media a tongue-lashing for talking about (incrementally) new research probably is more often wasted breath than otherwise; boiling down to debate over which hairs have been split and by whom and when. There are plenty of cases of excessive spin and hype, my personal punching-bag being the humdrum T. rex “scavenger” nonsense, but I usually find it more rewarding to look for the value in scientific ideas and data than excoriate the excesses of how they are presented to the public.

What’s more interesting, to me, is how weaving together old research to allow new ascents up scholastic landscapes moves science forward, sometimes in surprising ways. Old research provides data and ideas that are ancestors of new ideas and eventually new data. Indeed, this reticulating phylogeny of data and ideas muddies the waters between “data” and “ideas” in some cases. We need both, and different researchers fall into different positions along a spectrum. I see some scientists who take an “r selection” approach to ideas, throwing them out in a shotgun approach (sometimes with little or no peer review to control their quality) and hoping that some stick, adhering to supportive data. In contrast, other scientists fall closer to the “K selection” extreme, slowly nuturing ideas with cautious care, focusing on building up mountains of rigorous data to test those ideas with, until together they are ready to leave the academic nest and be published.

The integration of data and ideas from old research plays a variable role in that evolution of data and ideas– some of those scientists (falling on any point along that r-K spectrum) rely more on careful reading of past scientific literature to give their work firm historical footing and inspiration, whereas others mostly pluck a few references that they need to cite once they write up their work, not so keen on spending their time keeping up with the literature and thus focusing more on their own internal thought processes or other sources of inspiration. Different strokes for different folks…

What I’d like to close with, as a roughly second point of this post, is to question the inherent value of scientific ideas. I emphasize that I am unable to provide any easy answers here. What is the value of a good idea that needs testing by some kind of data? The source of inspiration may be immaterial to that evaluation; where one got one’s ideas may not matter here, it’s more about the value of the idea at hand– be it a hypothesis, a general question, a “what’s up with that?” (my personal favourite kind of research question); whatever.

For example, I can think of many cases in my career where a certain paper or grant owed hugely to an idea I had; without that idea, which wasn’t initially obvious, we’d still be stuck at some lower scientific base-camp, and big papers or grants or whatever would not have happened, and careers might not have blossomed the way they did (who knows!). My job as a senior researcher is often to “give away” ideas to those I mentor and collaborate with, and I love doing that. It’s seldom one-sided, with me playing the parthenogenetic parent and that’s it; normally these processes are intensely collaborative and thus multiparental hybrids. But I can usually trace back where the lineages of ideas came from and weigh their merits accordingly, and sometimes as scientists we have to do that.

However, it’s not just about ideas, either– a great scientific idea can be wonderfully valuable, but until it is tested its value might only be speculated upon. It takes the infamously time-consuming and technically challenging procedure of scientific  data collection and analysis to test most ideas, and different collaborators may play lesser or greater roles in that process vs. the ancestral idea-generating process(es). Along the way, we must think of ideas for how to test the main idea itself: what methods might work, what has or hasn’t been tried before to tackle similar problems, and is the method we’ve chosen even working as the scientific work proceeds or must we switch approaches? That gets messy; ideas and data begin to become entangled, and contributions of individuals intermingled, but that’s how science works.

This leads to the flip side of the value of scientific ideas, that in many cases they aren’t worth that much— they may be dead-ends for one reason or another: just foolish ideas; or untestable with current tools/data; or so obvious that anyone could have come up with them; or boring and not really worth trying to test. I’ve found it common to publish a paper and then hear, at some point before or after publication, another researcher say (in reference to some major or minor aspect of the paper) something like “Hey I mentioned that idea in this paper/book/blog post!” More often than not, I don’t want to say it in retort but my reaction is “Well, duh. It’s a pretty obvious idea”, and/or “That’s great, but you didn’t test it; that’s the hard bit”. Cheap ideas by definition aren’t worth much fuss. To abuse Shakespeare, “The science is the thing; wherein we’ll catch which idea in science is king.” (sorry!)

A common example I run across that falls within this theme of cheap ideas is to encounter a colleague (e.g. a new student, maybe one with lax supervision) who describes their new research project in which they apply some sort of fancy technique like computer modelling/simulation to an animal, such as a nice dinosaur fossil, doing what some previous study/studies had done with other species but applied to a new species. Uncomfortably often, when asked their justification for applying that method to that animal is because they can, and because they happen to have that animal accessible, rather than because there is an urgent, exciting question that must be answered for which that method and specimen are ideally suited to testing. It’s not worthless, but… more emphasis on the value of ideas and less on climbing Mt. Everest because it’s there might have been rewarding?

Returning to the main thrust of this post conveyed by the title, then, it’s not easy evaluating what the value of an idea is in science, but it’s something that we all have to learn to do as researchers, and it can bring out the best and worst of our humanity as scientists; perhaps leading to conflict; or it can even just end up with an unsatisfyingly muddled answer. So tread carefully on that scholastic landscape, and think about how you choose your way across it– there are many routes, but I think we can generally agree that the prize of discovery (whether incrementally small or uncommonly large) is a big part of why we dare the journey.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, your stories, and other insights here– it’s a very broad topic and lots of room for discussion!

Greetings Freezerinos, and Happy New Year! I have been quiet on this blog for health and other reasons but those will pass and there will be new posts in 2016. However, behind the scenes there have been super-cool things afoot. I am very happy to bring one of them to you now:

(but first: Stomach-Churning Rating: 6/10; video below shows a dissected sea turtle foot in motion)

We have just debuted our new social media “presence” (for lack of a better word) that is a sister blog to this one. It is called Anatomy To You (http://anatomytoyou.com/), as its intent is to bring a wide array of science about animal anatomy to “you”, the general public. This John’s Freezer blog will continue with it’s style of rambling longer posts targeted at a fairly geeky scientifically literate audience and focusing on my team’s research and my own disparate thoughts about science and related issues. Anatomy To You will bring you shorter posts, even just images, completely focused on celebrating the structure of organisms, and not just presenting my team’s research but also a wide array of anatomical science from around the globe. It will also be much more regular and frequent in its posts. We’ll welcome guest posts and I encourage you to get in touch with us if you want to jump on the bandwagon early, or have us feature your research for you!

More about the ATY blog is here, but there is also a Twitter feed and Facebook account. Our first major posts are on what skeletons are, and on a dissection of some sea turtles. Please follow us and join in the celebration of anatomy! My team’s scientific communicator/technician Dr. Lauren Sumner-Rooney is spearheading this ATY effort with me, so please follow her too!

Anatomy To You will continue to evolve over this coming year, so please stay with us and give us feedback; join in the morphological conversations with us. I am SUPER excited to see where this goes– it is an experiment that has a lot of potential, we think.

Sea turtle from our ATY dissection, foot muscles in action (found dead in the wild; don’t be ridiculous, we don’t kill sea turtles for our research)

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