Archive for June, 2011

On science journalism

Martin Robbins has a nice little write up on science journalism and it’s apparent fall from grace in favour of ‘science communication’. That is, those in the media who are simply reporting things, rather than actually digging into stories and doing some real investigation.

It’s well worth a read, but come back here afterwards as there are two points I’d raise in comment. First off, while I think this is generally true, there is some commentary to the effect that all these people are doing is imply communicating science. Well if that is all they are doing (as opposed to proper investigations and reports) then I think many would agree that they are terrible even at that. They seem to have reduced themselves to a fraction of their former identity and with a corresponding reduction in quality. As noted on here repeatedly, the inability of a great many places to even spell names properly, distinguish between major fields of biology, confuse birds with pterosaurs and the rest does not make for confidence in even a diminished role.

Secondly there are a few comments on the recent (and in my opinion, excellent) documentary on the state of science by the head of the Royal Society. This was given a little criticism on the grounds that it was presented by a scientist and not a journalist. As with Robbins, I can see the point. However, the other side of this is that too often we see documentaries, reports and especially the news that they give balance to a side that should have no say and credence to things that are not science, or are far from the mainstream (which brings to mind this quote again). I can see why people might not like to see a scientists just talking about the science (especially when it’s about the public perception of it) but if the alternative is to give balance to something that shouldn’t be there, then I think it’s by far the lesser of the evils.


I’m off to Zhucheng for a few days, so this might be the last post for a while. Depends on access really, though hopefully I’ll have some publishable things as a result of this trip….

And this works out how?

Thought my multifarious (and possibly nefarious) blogging and outreach activities I have built up a pretty good archive of dinosaur and associated taxon based stuff on the web. This is accompanied by what appears to be a fair following of readers who clearly like this stuff (and, dare I say it a bit of credibility as a researcher and communicator). I work hard at this stuff because I enjoy it and I think it is important, and I am a strong supporter of good scientific outreach.

It is then kinda troubling that twice in the last couple of years I have been approached by media people and effectively asked to promote their upcoming wares sight unseen. In both cases this pretty much consisted of them saying something like “We think the people who like your blog will like our stuff so please blog about it for us”. That, plus a bit about the show in question was pretty much it. (I should say that actually one was rather better than this in tone at least).

Now I can see why they are doing this – they want to reach their target audience and I am already reaching it. And it’s far easier for them to identify a few people like me and get me to do their work for free than it is for them to spend time and effort (and money) trying to advertise their wares. But while it is sort of flattering to get this kind of attention, it also shows a profound lack of respect on their part. They are basically asking me to all but shill myself to my readership about their product (without me knowing what it is) based on my years of graft and effort to get said readership in exchange for errr, well, nothing. What a deal! I really can’t wait to tell my readers about something that may not be any good on behalf of a media company (and in one case an advertising firm hired by the media company!) for no reason other than they asked.

Errr, no. Not playing. I think most science communication is good and I promote what I know and like where I can. But I am not doing this to save you the trouble of doing it yourself, and certainly not when you can afford it, and certainly not when I don’t know what it is, and absolutely not when it could be terrible or I fundamentally disagree with the premise or approach. And not for free either.

(And to qualify that, I’m not looking for money, but there is quid pro quo and if I’m in a position to get something which will help my projects and am under no obligation to say nice things about said venture, and when I am fully aware of the facts / content, then I’d at least consider it – I’m otherwise being asked to give up potentially quite a lot for absolutely nothing at all. If you want an exchange or partnership then by all means ask, but doing so when the entire thing is done and set to run gives me no input, not time to make a real decision, or know if the people I’m speaking to can be trusted etc.).

So yeah, I didn’t do either, and I was also rather insulted to even be asked in the manner in which I was. For some strange reason I sort of get the feeling that the media don’t quite get how to handle science and / or scientists. Now who would have thought that?

Bob & Tess Update

After the palaeoart interview of last week Bob and Tess got back in touch with two revised images. A large sample of the Carnegie museum mural and a revised version of the Giganotosaurs art with (hopfully) slightly less bright greens. People might have missed these updates, hence the separate post.



Double palaeoart interview with Bob & Tess

Often known by just their first names, Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger form the Bob & Tess team that run their own palaeoart studio. I pitched them the usual bunch of questions, but the nature of their collaborative work means that the replies are a mix of their answers. So sit back and enjoy a sort of a double interview. All images theirs, copyright, blah blah, kind permission, you know the drill by now.

How long have you been an artist?

Bob and Tess: we have both been artists since we could pick up a crayon.  Each of us was the class cartoonist and went from taking every art class we could in High School directly to Art School.  Bob graduated from The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and did his science academics at University of Pennsylvania, Tess at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Bob:  I really flummoxed this fine old fine art institution which graduated Mary Cassatt and Thomas Eakins and many other early American painters by wanting to illustrate science.  It may have been the late 60s but there was no hipness to the curriculum at PAFA which suited me just fine.  Anatomy came first and foremost.  I took additional graphics classes and learned all I could about the process of various kinds of printing too.

Tess: Carnegie had a school of engineering as well as art and I found myself gravitating toward art and science as well, but for me it was the interface between art and physics.  Until I met Bob anyway – although we still enjoy a glass of wine and a discussion of the nature of gravity in the garden on warm summer nights.  What nerds we are!

Plateosaurus by Bobby W. 1953

How long have you been producing palaeoart?

Bob: here is an example of some of my paleoart at age 4.I have pretty much been drawing dinosaurs all my life but I didn’t get my first paying dinosaur art job until 1978 when I produced a large-format illustration children’s dinosaur book called “Dinosaurs, The Terrible Lizards” from E. P. Dutton.  I had improved a lot by then.

Plateosaurus by Bob Walters 1978

Tess: I enjoyed hanging around with paleontologists but I didn’t start illustrating dinosaurs until I worked with Bob on the Creative Discovery Museum in 1995.  We moved to the new studio, I quit my job and we decided to try to make a go of it as a new company, Walters & Kissinger.

What first got you interested in dinosaurs and art?

Bob: That’s an easy one, I remember the exact day, year, almost the exact hour- September 7, 1953 at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon- when I saw the gatefold cover to LIFE Magazine with the illustration of Zallinger’s mural from the Peabody on it.  I asked my mother if dinosaurs were real and she said they were and we traveled to see exhibits of them at museums up and down the East Coast. (I was raised in Delaware)  It was just a natural fit I think, to live in a place so immersed in the Brandywine tradition of illustrators and have access to so many dinosaur museums- being a dinosaur illustrator was what I wanted to do right from the start.  The funny thing is that I thought it was my unique place in my family and then I found out that my great uncle Robert, after whom I was named, traveled with Marsh on dinosaur digs when he was at Yale. Maybe it was in my genes AND my environment!

Tess: I really fell in love with the beauty of the fossils first.  As an adult.  And I enjoyed the company of paleontologists so well that their natural enthusiasms sort of rubbed off. And then of course, I was living with Bob!

What is your favourite piece of palaeo art that you have produced?

I think we would both agree that it is the mural of the Hell Creek environment (below) that we did for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  The museum specified a morning, rainy environment for the Triassic (Chinle) mural, an afternoon lighting for the Jurassic (Morrison) mural and the sun setting on the dinosaurs for the Cretaceous ( Hell Creek) mural.  This fading light gave us an opportunity to do such a pretty painting as well as a description of the environment.

Who is your favourite palaeoartist or piece of palaeoart?

Both of us would have to say Charles R. Knight. Just love him as a colorist and a “painterly” painter.  These days, everything is so 3D digital that we ask ourselves, “How real is too real?”  I mean, we are giving the impression with 3D digital that we know the size and mass and color and environment of these things and we sure don’t.  We both like digital media and use it, but we prefer an artists’ life restoration to be more artistic- and we worry that paleoart is trying to convince the public that we know more than we do.

What is your favourite dinosaur / archosaur?

Bob: it is usually the ones I am working on currently but perennial faves are T. rex and Deinonychus. And I have a special place in my heart for Giganotosaurus.  I did the first scientific life restoration of it, my first SVP poster about it, and its skull lived here in the studio while its body was mounted at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

Tess:  I am a fan of Stegosaurus.  It is just so “showy”.

Is there any animal you would like to paint but have not?

Bob: I ‘d like a chance to work on mammal-like reptiles more. Particularly the pelicosaurs.  And Dimetrodon which I have only gotten to work on a couple of times, especially after a conversation with Bob Bakker a couple of years ago about Dimetrodon ecology.

What do you think is the most important part of good palaeoart?

Bob and Tess:  We both think the most important part of being a paleoartist is working with paleontologists and doing our own research to reconstruct from the fossil evidence to fleshed-out animal.  Careful measuring of material, consultation with the paleontologists who are most familiar with the animal – these are the ways that you can be assured that, if not right forever, you have done the best work with what we knew at the time. Right now, working on the mural for Dinosaur National Monument, we have to portray 64 different species of plants and animals which are represented by fossils at the site, many of whom have never been illustrated before, and are known from fragmentary evidence – that is when the paleoartist most has to rely on the paleontologists who discovered these species to come as close as possible to a correct representation of the animals. Can’t release any pics of the work until October – sorry.

Darwinopterus robustodens

Since the description of the amazing Darwinopterus modularis there has suddenly been a huge rash (or even rush) of new Darwinopterus-like taxa to be described from the Middle Jurassic Chinese beds. A few of them I’ve managed to get hold of photos for and pictured in my great Chinese pterosaur roundup earlier this year.

Clearly at least some taxonomic revision is going to be needed here as, even assuming every named genus and species is valid (which I rather doubt), some of the current descriptions and definitions don’t really overlap. So many taxa have come out so fast (and from two different research groups) that inevitably things have been published without any kind of real comparison to the others which were unpublished at the time.

Into this maelstrom comes Darwinopterus robustodens which as you might have already guessed has rather robust teeth, but otherwise is incredibly similar to the other taxa in this little assortment. What makes this stand out in at least one way is the simply magnificent condition of the holotype (shown here thanks to Lu Junchang). Every one of the others so far has a bit missing (like most of the skull of Wukongopterus) or is not actually that well preserved (like the referred specimen of D. modularis) or is a bit disarticulated (like Kunpengopterus) or some combination of these.

This on the other hand is all but perfect. It’s complete (right down to the end of the tail) it’s articulated, and it’s in great condition. There is more to see in this specimen than any of the other dozen or so that have already been refereed to this group of pterosaurs. That will be most helpful when it comes to sorting out the taxonomy of these animals and makes for a near perfect display piece.


Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 32: Removing the field jacket 2

Some pieces come off in large sections. A block of wood is useful as a fulcrum with the screwdriver(s) to pry up the plaster bandages. After 1.5 days of pulling and tearing, most of the jacket was off, rock was showing and the ilium uncovered in the field was also seen again for the first time in several years. The skull was outlined again with a red felt pen using the drilled holes. As the jacket got thinner, a quite large piece wanted to lift off the skull area. This was too big, so I used a cast cutter to cut two parallel lines through the jacket and pulled out the plaster and burlap in between.

This separated the remaining jacket into two pieces and the plaster/burlap covering the skull section was lifted off easily. By doing this, the jacketed skull was seen. The rags and black plastic sheeting was exposed and removed- the latter with a razor blade. The skull jacket looks odd with white sandstone and dark brown mud, but the latter was a poultice I mixed up and put on the exposed snout to protect it from the jacket- I did not want the jacket pressed right against the skull.

The poultice of dried mud was removed and preparation on the skull begun again. The skull is definately incomplete on this side and the bone seems more poorly preserved- the bone is very splintery. Several of the teeth show white meandering markings (root etchings) made by modern plants as they grew against the specimen. It is thought the roots leach minerals out of the fossil with possible negative effects on the fossil. The rest of the exposed rock was allowed to dry out and when done, glue was squirted into the cracks, etc to stabilize it for the upcoming preparation.

Fieldwork for me starts very soon so these will likely be the last postings from me for some time. [Actually Darren has already gone I think, I’ve just had this sat waiting for a while].

Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 31: Pulling off the jacket 1.

Dave writes: I’m nearly over my jetlag and am now settling down to the business of working at the IVPP. Sadly there’s nothing on display I haven’t shown off before and I’m still behind on writing some posts of m y own. So for now you’ll have to settle for yet more Gorgosaurus prep.

Now comes the “fun” part, taking the original field jacket off. Often we use power tools such a reciprocating saws and remove large pieces of the jacket, but the specimen is too fragile and nice to risk it as these tools cause vibrations. First the bolts were removed. Usually with a field jacket, the first few layers (there are about 6-7 on this in total) come off easily by hand, so the edge of the burlap is found and simply pulled away one piece at a time. Because the pieces overlap and are covered in plaster it is hard to see where one piece starts and end and sometimes you end up pulling on a lower piece and it tears into smaller bits. On average, the pieces here came of in hand-sized bits. A couple large flat-headed screwdrivers were good to get under the burlap and lift it up and separate the layers.

All the supporting 2 X 4 timbers used as splints in the field jacket were removed and saved- they can be used in another jacket someday. Once I got down to the harder plaster I used a water spray gun to soak the plaster/burlap. This softens the plaster and makes removal easier. Many people uses water-soaked rags for this step, but the water hose was close by so I just sprayed it lightly. After soaking in for 10-15 minutes the pieces came off more easily. Removal of a plaster jacket piece by piece by hand is tough on ones fingers and hands and time consuming- the better part of one day (7.5 hours work) was needed to get this far.

Back in Beijing

Well after another mammoth journey I’m back in China for the summer. Obviously this will likely curtail my Musings activities, though sadly our planned fieldwork has hit a huge brick wall and it’s not clear if I’ll make it into the field at all. Still, there should be some nice specimens to see and hopefully a few of them will make their way onto here in the near future.

Some ‘Ask A Biologist’ outreach

My once ‘little’ project, Ask A Biologist is now grown fat on well over 4000 questions and continues to grow ever bigger. However, that rate of expansion has never been quite what I hoped for and I continue to try and push it in ever bigger and more effective ways. This has to be done on a budget, what with this being basically a voluntary and unfunded organisation and all. Still, we recently did splash out a bit of money to have some professionally made posters and leaflets produced. These look rather better in their These look rather better in their PDF forms (available to download below) than the included jpegs but I am eager to get them out there so here they are.There’s a poster (that should be good up to A3) and two flyer designs (A4 double sided). Flyer A has a ‘reversed’ front page so it can be folded as a nice small leaflet to distribute, and the type B has not so that it can be folded, or just left as a single A4 flyer.

Also included below are a bunch of various poster designs and logos or banners. Please take any and all of these and print them up, post them online, e-mail them around or whatever. Just get them to people or give them to people, kids, teachers, educators, whatever. Obviously we simply want to promote the site as far as possible and we think we are doing a good job, but with more people finding us, we can do a better one and you can help.

Anyway, download, link-to, post, print, encourage and enjoy. Thanks.

Flyer A

Flyer B

AAB Poster

Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 30: turning the block 2

The block is lifted off the table by a large overhead crane (it runs on tracks mounted near the ceiling and can move 4 directions) and lowered onto a pallet jack. Then it was taken to a larger empty work area nearby. The red lifting straps are readjusted so when the block is lifted it now stands vertically, then the whole crane is moved over and simultaneously the cable lowered so the jacket comes to rest “upside-down”. Actually it is now in its original field orientation. The flipped block is put back on the pallet jack, wheeled over to the work desk, the straps readjusted a final time and the block lifted back onto the table. This work is always done with others helping for safety reasons.

Once the block was on my work table I was able to refind the holes I drilled through days ago and “connect the dots” with a red marker pen. Now I  know exactly where the skull is positioned inside. Now the manual labor of pulling the jacket off begins!

Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 29: Turning the block over 1.

The new support jacket was labelled with the specimen number, again several times in case the number accidently gets rubbed off. Strong nylon rachet straps were put around the specimen to hold it all together. Four 1/2″ holes were drilled through the new jacket at each “corner” and down through the old field jacket underneath. I used photographs to ensure I was not drilling through bone. Heavy bolts and washers were inserted into the holes and a nut tightened on underneath. These bolts will ensure everything stays together. Then lifting straps were slid under the block in preparation for lifting and turning the block over.

Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 28: The plastering begins.

A very hard and strong plaster called FGR 95 is mixed up. This is incredibly strong stuff- used alot to make hollywood sets (building frontages) I’ve heard. The damp burlap is lowered into the pan of mixed plaster and dragged through the creamy mix so both sides are liberally coated. The burlap is removed and gently squeezed or wrung out over the pan- usually it is squeezed by being pulled through a hole created by the index finger touching the thumb tip.

The “bandage” is put on the toilet papered specimen and starting at the middle, the bandage pressed down into the specimen, adhering to its contours and any air underneath is pushed out to the edges if necessary. Then another bandage is put next to the first one with a good bit of overlap. Three thick FGR 95 and burlap layers (with heavy overlap) were put on the Gorgosaurus. A final coat of thick FGR 95 was put on top of that and as it cured, it was smoothed out by hand, which was frequently dipped into a pan of clean water. Plaster and burlaping took about 1 hour.

Once done the just made support jacket was allowed to sit, cure and dry. The jacket gets quite warm as the chemical reaction in the plaster occurs. Alowed to sit and dry, much water evaporates out reducing the weight of the specimen. The final picture shows the new support jacket finished; scale bar = 10 cm.

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