Thursday, March 15, 2012

Paleobiology - my revolutionary display

 Recently I helped put together a library display oriented on paleobiology.  I know next to nothing about the topic, so I partnered with a faculty member in the Geosciences department.  I was very happy with the final outcome, which featured a number of items we had on the shelves and a few borrowed rocks and informative snippets.  I always enjoy working on projects like this one because it allows me to learn about an area I knew nothing about, and in researching the various items I am constantly amazed at how interdisciplinary science is.  Our study of the Earth goes beyond merely analyzing the physical elements making it up.  Understanding the composition of a rock helps us understand the environment which made it possible and can lead to other conclusions such as how early life came to be, and even gives us a possible glimpse into what is happening on other planets.  

Anecdotally, when I discuss geology with peers it seems to be an area of study which is initially perceived as dry.  Rocks were something we collected as children because they looked pretty, but discussing what made them pretty held little interest.  Perhaps this reflects more on our social values, which appreciates the perfect princess cut diamond on the hand of a bride-to-be, and does not necessarily question how the diamond was mined. There is some recognition that the formation of certain crystals is rare and to be appreciated for its unique nature, but I found when writing out the information cards that the most interesting rocks were the ones which looked unassumingly simple.  For example, I recalled in elementary school appreciating pumice as the rock that floats. But upon further investigation I found that the formation of pumice requires a volcano which contains high viscosity lava.  Lava which cannot flow easily consequently erupts from the volcano and promptly cools so quickly it traps air bubbles inside it, creating pumice.  This struck me because often I do not appreciate how understanding something simple (such as the composition of lava) can provide explanation for something on a larger scale (such as the behavior of a volcano). 

Working with a geosciences faculty member to create the display also provided me an opportunity to network with the department.  Show casing interdepartmental work lays the ground work for future collaborations (hopefully) and I think is indicative of how the library is more than just a resource for the patrons. Library outreach is always important, but maybe even more so now as we are shifting into a digital age and becoming less of a physical presence in our patrons lives.  

In contrast to my academic display, my coworker who is the library liaison to the education department created a display which was much more colorful.  Dinosaurs were prominent.  Archaeology and the study of fossils is an area which could be considered a polar opposite of geology.  With the beloved study of fierce larger than life lizards and the prominent example of Indiana Jones, this is a field of science which is glorified. Upon closer inspection however, one realizes how little we can understand a culture or an organism when all we have are bones or an empty ruin. And that I suppose is the beauty of the human mind as it pieces together an understanding of the world around us. We speculate and imagine, and then test and examine. Occasionally we revolutionize our common understanding, but it is only possible through the various details of our lives adding up. It is a precarious balance and before I meander off into more philosophical thought I'll end with a quote from the display.

·         “Those who would question the present should investigate the past. Those who do not understand what is to come should look at what has gone before.” – The Guanzi (A collection of ancient Chinese writings dated 5th – 1st Century BC)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What "lost information" will be rediscovered 100 years from now?

A recent posting in the Nature News Blog about rediscovering specimen collections of Darwin has me contemplating what "dusty" corners will be found later on when our science becomes history. There are still taxonomist collecting specimen and old tools being left in the corner of a lab today. With everything being digitized, perhaps those much hated National Geographics which are lovingly donated to your library really could be invaluable to someone 100 years from now. This thought has been one which I love discussing with other scientists in the vein of the fabulous "Motel of Mysteries" by David Macalay which explores what assumptions might be made about our society and civilization today if someone a thousand years from now tried to piece it together from finding a buried motel.  My favorite image being the scene which depicts the ceremonial headdress as we praised our porcelain gods.

This also ties into our growing worry about a digital dark age as we consider how much massive information we are creating today, and how impossible it will be to constantly convert old information into the latest and greatest format.  All that junk email left behind could contain the future "gold nuggets" someone discovers when they go back and bother finding out what's on that floppy disc their great grandfather left behind in his old lab desk.  Will future scientist have their old Facebook photos re-found and marveled at for containing the next Einstein and Newton consuming a congratulatory beverage over inventing light speed travel?

Human lives are brief, and it can cause a range of reaction in people who perhaps feel that impending end to their influence on the physical world. In my brief time of observation, and most recently on my mind, two types spring to mind: hoarders and releasers.

Releasers view the world and see needs that should be filled.  Information for information's sake, if you will.  From these people we get: clean water inventions being created, comic books being funded or even an entire female organ finally visualized. All these things you see being discovered or created fairly recently, when we had the ability to do so decades ago. While the politics are more complex than I discuss here, some of the blame for why we do not "release" information focused on some obvious needs can be placed on the hoarders.

Hoarders see everything as valuable. More so than the A&E TV show, hoarders encompasses those people unwilling to let some things go because sharing it does not benefit them in any direct way.  I am tying this to the recent discussions I've seen about SOPA and Public Access Policy.  To those people who view limitations to information access as necessary I say, you are setting us up to one day be rediscovered and completely misunderstood. Rules and restrictions have their place.  The scientific method would not be an invaluable tool for discovery if it did not establish measurable evidence to be constantly compared back on our previous knowledge base.  But hoarding information benefits no one in the long term, it just set us up to disregard what we deem as no longer monetarily valuable.

So, what will you keep around in the hopes your treasure is discovered by some future anthropologist?  Will your treasure be like Mendel's peas, left to be lamented that they were not shared soon enough? Or will it reflect on how large your impact was, that something as everyday as your random collection will be given an invaluable status.

Update: For further information on SOPA/PIPA/OPEN I recommend this resource guide my library created which lists various places to find out more about the bills