Friday, June 15, 2007

Jealous of Time

So, as I think I mentioned, a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta. I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about the several extra hours of driving entailed by this side trip on the way home from WWW 2007, but it turned out to be well worth it. In many ways it was much more memorable than the conference, as side trips usually are I guess.

The Tyrrell museum is cool for three main reasons, it has loads of very well preserved and reconstructed dinosaur skeletons, most of the specimens seem to come from nearbye (you can still find them yourself all around apparently), and the museum is laid out in a very precise (as far as I can tell :), chronological order. You start out at the beginning of life on Earth and work your way through the museum and through the ages, the history of life unfolding all around you. Though the dinosaurs are amazing, the scientific highlight of the museum is definitely the tribute that they have assembled to the specimens of the Burgess Shale.

Though not as impressive as the dinosaurs, the little beasts in this collection tell very interesting stories about the history of life, and, according to some, the nature of evolution. The interesting thing about them {e.g. Hallucigenia,Pikaia, Anomalocaris} is that many seem to offer no logical connection to any modern organism - their lines apparently ending primarily in extinctions rather than evolutionary adaptation towards modern forms. Stephen Jay Gould used these observations as evidence for his ideas about punctuated equilibrium and, especially, about the importance of historical contingency (luck) in evolution in his book Wonderful Life. I know this because I was so excited about Life and in particular about the Burgess Shale that I bought the first book I could find that had anything to do with it in the museum gift shop and read it immediately.

As I walked through that museum, I was reminded of the absolutely stunning diversity of life. That re-realization really woke up a lot of things about myself that have been hidden by my currently very urban life and the non-biological nature of my work. First, this sounds strange to say, but it really made me want to go scuba diving again... Diving is about the only thing that I've done that has produced the feeling of discovery ("holy crap, did you seethat!!..") that I felt in that museum. Another thing it reminded me of was that I actually got into biology quite some time ago specifically to get a better understanding of evolution. Somehow I've been pretty thoroughly sidetracked.. contingency in my own life history perhaps.

To conclude, I title this post "Jealous of Time" because those words started echoing through my head about halfway through my visit to the Terrell. I felt a sense of loss at not having had the chance to see all of those wonderful creatures before they dissappeared forever. I mean c'mon, wouldn't you have liked to have a chance to see an 8 foot long beaver in action!!