The Phyletisches Museum, Jena, Germany
Several years ago, someone sent me a link to some photos of a museum in the former East Germany. The images showed parts of a fabulous ceiling decorated with paintings that seemed to have been drawn from Ernst Haeckel’s famous illustrations of jellyfish; sort of a Sistine Chapel of cnidarians. It was apparently in Jena, which I realized was the same place that made an appearance in the “Carl Zeiss Jena” labels on optical equipment. I thought the ceiling looked gorgeous, and filed it away into that category of . . . “yeah, that would be nice, if I could live to about 1000 and have the opportunity to go everywhere.”
Then, last October, it happened. I was visiting Germany to examine collections of fossil jellyfish, driving from place to place with my colleague James Hagadorn. After time in Munich, we were studying collections in Freiberg, a bit north of the Czech border. Freiberg was to be followed up with a visit to Gotha, before we headed for Frankfurt and our return flights to North America. On our second day in Freiberg we finished by lunchtime, which meant that there was time to stop somewhere on our way to Gotha. So . . . Jena!
It turned out to be a pretty little city. The museum was easy to find, and there was parking on the street right beside it.
The Phyletisches Museum was actually planned by the great biologist Ernst Haeckel, as a physical representation of some of his ideas on phylogeny (the evolution of groups of organisms) and ontogeny (the development of an individual organism). It was opened at the University of Jena just over 100 years ago. The collections of this museum have a tremendously deep history extending back hundreds of years, but as a university museum of modest size, I suspect that it had some lean times in the mid 20th Century.
Fortunately, things seem to have improved more recently. It appears that all of the exhibits have been renovated, with the old cases being cleverly re-used in beautifully designed exhibits that include large numbers of specimens from the collections. With the gorgeous architectural features of the building, it all “works” as a coherent piece.
Contemplating the Trans-Canada Timeline
In the past few weeks there seems to have been a lot of discussion of evolution in the popular press. Or rather, there has not been an awful lot about evolution per se, but there has been quite a bit of conversation concerning the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham on the relative merits of the Theory of Evolution vs. a literal biblical interpretation of the history of life.
I won’t go into the outcomes of the debate, but many of the things that were said got me thinking about the average person’s understanding of the history of our planet. In the discussion of Ham vs. Nye, it was often pointed out that about 40-50% of Americans believe that the Earth was divinely created, with a good few of them being young Earth creationists who insist that the planet is in the range of 5,700 to 10,000 years old (the percentage in Canada would be somewhat lower, but still substantial). While the thinking of young Earth creationists seems abundantly clear, it is far less certain what most other people think about when they contemplate Earth History. Do they have any clear ideas to replace the reassurance given to those who possess absolute faith?
Over the past couple of centuries, science has learned a tremendous amount about the history of Earth and life. Our scientific understanding of these issues is based on an immense amount of painstakingly-gathered data; the raw data, if printed, would fill many warehouses. When we say that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, and when we say that life on this planet has evolved, these are facts, readily observed from the basic data.
Although scientific information is easily available in our modern age, it seems that many people are quite unaware of it. In my dealings with the public I have been fascinated to discover that, among people who apparently accept evolution and an ancient Earth, there are many who lack any basic comprehension of the scale and complexity of geological time.
Whale Cove, Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick
The inner end of Whale Cove is defined by an immense barrier bar, separating the lagoonal barachois from open waters of the bay. Walking along the bar on an unseasonally hot summer day, you are struck by the fact that many of its constituent stones are geologically rather similar. Unlike some beaches elsewhere on Grand Manan, which contain a great diversity of rock types, the bar is largely composed of pebbles and cobbles of basalt.
The source of much of the basalt in the Whale Cove bar is easily determined. Northward, either side of the bay’s mouth is lined with cliffs. Ashburton Head on the western horizon is particularly impressive, and in front of it are the layered flows of the Seven Days Work. Basalt, almost as far as the eye can see! These rocks are all part of the uppermost Triassic Dark Harbour Basalt.
Much of the basalt in the bar is of a mid grey colour. Wet stones by the sea look black, but in the midday sun the round cobbles higher on the bar are bright and pale. The beachcomber’s eye is drawn to any that stand out from the background grey: each occasional piece of white quartz or pink granite is picked up and examined.
It is a common error of logic to think that the rest of the universe will conform to our modest experience of our own little piece of the world. We see this sort of faulty generalization all the time in discussions of topics like evolution and global warming; it is the perception that “if I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, then it cannot be true.”
As scientists, paleontologists should be less prone to this sort of error than some other people, and I think in general we are good at examining all the available evidence, digging through the published literature to determine the most accurate answer to a particular question. This doesn’t necessarily hold true, however, when we consider issues that are barely touched on in the literature: when we are looking at fossils and situations that are poorly documented anywhere in the world. When we are considering these, we tend to be like anyone else and fall back on our personal experience. Read more…
The city of Dublin emanates a shabby charm. Much of the city centre has been beautifully renovated, yet the overall impression is of a once-elegant town that saw its prime sometime before Irish independence was achieved. Or maybe it is just a place that has its corners rubbed off quickly by the rough-and-tumble of life, its paintwork scuffed and doorways chipped by too many stonking Saturday nights.
The impression of a distant grand past is also evident as you step into Dublin’s public buildings. Just off Merrion Square, beside the Dáil (the Irish Parliament), stands the National Museum of Natural History. Though not constructed on the scale of its French equivalent, this institution similarly preserves the idea of the natural history museum as the repository of biological variety and morphological complexity.
I will not attempt a detailed description and discussion of the Irish museum, since that was done twenty years ago by Stephen Jay Gould, in inimitable erudite fashion. As Gould pointed out, although the museum gives the appearance of a place frozen in time, it has in fact evolved and changed over the century-and-a-half since it was opened in 1857. But the changes have respected its initial intention, which was to exhibit the zoological diversity of Ireland and the wider world. Read more…
The last few months have been a bit of a blur, with many travels fitted into the summer and autumn interval. The prior months were a blur of a different sort, as a group of Winnipeg geologists scrambled to assemble the essential components of GAC-MAC Winnipeg 2013, the annual meeting for Canadian geoscientists. In addition to a variety of presentation sessions (including one I wrote about here a few months back), there were also several social functions, and some well-attended field trips. The field trip guidebooks have recently received online publication, and free downloads can be found here. Read more…
One interesting sidebar to our annual research trips to the Grand Rapids Uplands is that we have been able to observe the slow decay of dead trees and regeneration of vegetation following the massive Norris Lake fire. This conflagration, in late May of 2008, burned 53,000 hectares of forest, including large areas adjacent to Highway 6 north of Grand Rapids. It turns out that the fire was started accidentally by students on an ecological program.
We were actually in the area in 2008 on the day the fire began, and I posted some fire and immediately-post-fire images a couple of years later, following those up again with some 2011 sunset shots. This September’s visit seemed like a good time to document the further regeneration, as the jack pine seedlings were a beautiful bright green against the autumn leaves, buff dolostone, and blackened trunks. Read more…