On Failures of Imagination

Yesterday I talked about ‘expected surprises‘ with regards to Yi qi. Yi qi is a surprise because its anatomy is so unlike other theropods, and it suggests that dinosaurs were experimenting with flight and/or gliding in some ways that were quite different from our current understanding of feather and bird wing evolution. But it was also not entirely unexpected, because scansoriopterygids had super weird anatomy to begin with that gave us enough information to speculate about possible gliding adaptations in those dinosaurs, even though the general consensus was that it was pretty far-fetched.

But today I wanted to talk about a related feeling, which I like to call the Failure of Imagination. Last summer I was working my way through a DVD set of classic sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure movies that I had picked up at some point. I wound up watching a lot of these with friends and basically Mystery Science Theatre 3000-ing the films, and in particular the old space adventure movies from the 40s-60s provided much entertainment. It’s really fun to take a look back and see what sorts of things people envisioned the future holding for us – space travel, exoplanet exploration, robots. But what also struck me was the things that the filmmakers and storywriters couldn’t even imagine.

They could imagine spaceships and robots, but they couldn’t imagine wireless technology. Or storing information in digital form rather than on spools of tape.

Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) 

They couldn’t imagine non-button-and-dial-based instrumentation. 

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger: Crash of Moons (1954)

And they definitely couldn’t imagine women in roles other than administrative assistants (or as the bad guys). SO MANY SPACE SECRETARIES.

 First Spaceship on Venus (1960)

I kept thinking to myself – what sorts of failures of imagination are we having in palaeontology today? We can imagine so many things. But I wonder what kinds of things we won’t even know we don’t know. When we try our hand at speculative biology, what will scientists 80 or 100 years from now think was charming, or quaint, or ahead of its time. Failures of imagination are one of those things that make me nervous as a scientist, because I don’t like the idea that I won’t even know what I’m not imagining.

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On Surprises

I love surprises. Which is unfortunate for me, because I am extremely bad at being surprised. And it’s hard to be surprised by things as you get older, and as easier access to more and more information becomes available to us every day.

But boy, when a surprise comes along that actually takes me by surprise, what a thing to be able to savour.

An extraordinary painting of Yi qi by Emily Willoughby, CC-BY.

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Dinosaurs 101

In addition to working through the home stretch of my PhD, an exciting project has kept me hopping for the last few months. I’m part of the team creating the University of Alberta’s flagship MOOC, in partnership with Udacity: Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology. If MOOC is a new acronym for you, don’t worry – it was for me, too. There will be three flavours, so to speak, of Dino 101, but all will feature the same online content. Dino 101 will be available through Udacity, for free, to everyone around the world. Registered University of Alberta students who want to take the course for credit will register for PALEO 200 (online only), or PALEO 201 (same online content, but with additional in-person activities like field trips).

Working on Dino101 has been a great experience for me so far, even though it can be challenging. We’re working closely with educational specialists to make sure the pedagogy is sound, and that our assessments will be rigorous. We want to make sure that real learning will occur. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the foundational aspects of the course, like what our learning outcomes will be, and what skills will be tested. I’ve been learning a lot about educational theory – even though the scale of MOOCs is new, there’s a lot of people on board with this project who have researched the best ways to deliver and assess online content. We also have a great team working on unique interactives for the course, which should enhance the experience for students.

As we finish off scripts and move into production, I’m looking forward to seeing some of the cool ideas we have planned for teaching the basic concepts of dinosaur palaeontology come to life. I also hope that this course will serve as a springboard for people who are interested in animal biology and geology, and that everyone will come away with a better understanding of the scientific method.

I hope we’ll see you in Dino101 when we launch this September!

(Check out the UofA’s official Dino101 page for more information and to sign up for updates.)

Ultimate ROM

This summer, the Royal Ontario Museum unveiled a brand-new exhibit all about the dinosaurs of Gondwana. When Pangaea rifted apart during the Triassic, it split into two continents – Laurasia, represented by the modern northern continents of North America, Europe, and Asia, and Gondwana, represented by the modern southern continents of South America, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica, plus India, Madagascar, and New Zealand. The dinosaurs and other extinct terrestrial vertebrates of Gondwana differed from their northern neighbours, and we don’t often see them in exhibitions in North America.

Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants of Gondwana features lots of interesting and sometimes obscure dinosaurs, some really great artwork, and some neat technological things (of which I am sometimes skeptical, but can wholeheartedly endorse here).

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You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose…and you can definitely pick your ankylosaur’s nose.

Say hello to Euoplocephalus, the best known ankylosaur you’ve never heard of. Besides Pinacosaurus from Mongolia and China, there are more specimens referred to Euoplocephalus than to any other ankylosaurid, and it is certainly the most well represented ankylosaurid from North America. Yet Euoplocephalus often gets overlooked because its younger cousin is THAT ankylosaur, the one that starred at the World’s Fair and was in Jurassic Park III and Clash of the Dinosaurs and Dinosaur Revolution and gets all the cool toys and, you know, is the namesake of the group. You know, Ankylosaurus. Well, hopefully you’ll be hearing more from me about Euoplocephalus over the coming months. Today we’ll be picking its nose. Continue reading