The men who collect dinosaurs

by on February 4, 2016 at 12:17 am in History, Science | Permalink

‘I’m just starting out as a collector,’ Sebastian begins. ‘I only own prehistoric shark teeth and I have a fossil of a prehistoric squid from way before the dinosaurs, and I got a Utahraptor bone shard I think from my kindergarten teacher, she’s an amateur palaeontologist who first got me into dinosaurs, and I have dinosaur poop but I think you should put in the word “coprolite”. That’s the technical term.’ He thinks some more. ‘Oh, I have mosasaur teeth, that’s a very cool prehistoric aquatic reptile. Imagine owning a T rex though! I would like to own any complete dinosaur, I don’t care which one.’

To my surprise, Sebastian doesn’t see an emotional difference between owning dinosaur toys and owning real dinosaurs, and he hints at a dimensionless state he enters using imagination. ‘If I look at a toy giganotosaurus, it feels the same as looking at a real giganotosaurus, which I have only seen once in a museum. I really see the same thing when I’m looking at my toy. I forget that the real dinosaur is way bigger. My toy is just as big in my mind.’

That is from an interesting Laurie Gwen Shapiro Aeon article, hat tip goes to Anecdotal.

1 Mark Thorson February 4, 2016 at 12:48 am

I’ve sometimes thought it would be cool to live near an outcropping of something like the Burgess Shale formation, so a hobby could be cracking those rocks open looking for interesting stuff. But the weather near anyplace like that is terrible, and it looks like I’ll always have something more important to do. I can’t really imagine retiring and needing a hobby.

2 Ray Lopez February 4, 2016 at 12:52 am

Yeah that’s just what the Burgess Shale formation, needs, which I think is only a few hundred meters wide, an amateur hacking at it with a hammer…;-) But the Smithsonian itself is probably negligent in storing the numerous fossils they have I would imagine. Unless and until fossils are allowed to be bought-and-sold on the free market, so you can order Tyrannosaurus Sue on eBay, I’m afraid fossils will be misallocated by society…

3 dstraws February 4, 2016 at 10:04 am

Your imagination is incorrect! The Smithsonian and other repositories treat the fossils like the treasures they are. What good are fossils, can society really misallocate them? Actually it can by making them subject to the vicissitudes of personal collector. A fossil is more than the physical object recovered from the ground, it is also the provenance. That is what is usually lost when private individuals collect them.

4 chuck martel February 4, 2016 at 11:06 am

Yes, only an organ of the state should be authorized to possess something of the significance of a fossil, or, for that matter, a lot of other important things:

5 Mark Thorson February 4, 2016 at 1:00 am

Now that I think about it, the way to do this right is build an automatic machine which cracks the rocks open and examines them with a vision system. The >99% of uninteresting fracture faces end up on the waste pile, and the <1% of possibles are barcoded and placed in waffle packs. Either I examine all the possibles myself, or maybe crowdsource their images on the net — random strangers can tell me which rocks to look at. Maybe just have software that automatically posts it all to eBay and see what rocks get some active bidding.

6 Ray Lopez February 4, 2016 at 4:32 am

Yes, but this proposal of yours is a ‘hybrid human – machine’ system, akin to TC’s mention of the “centaur” system for playing chess (humans telling a chess playing computer which moves to look at, and the chess machine giving an assessment of these moves). This is the ‘optimistic’, “win-win” scenario for human-robot interaction–each side complementing the other. However, as TC I believe has acknowledged, eventually you can do away with the human altogether. Thus, to use our centaur example, already a machine just picking what it thinks is the best move is superior to a human-PC (centaur) combination (it was not always so clear when TC wrote his book a few years ago). So, back to your example: why do you even need humans in the loop? Why crowdsource at all? Just have the AI-fossil finding machine examine the fractures and pick the fossils.

7 Mark Thorson February 4, 2016 at 11:01 am

I don’t think vision systems are yet sophisticated enough to tell a genuine fossil from just some swirl of mineral color. I think they’d be best to kick out all the anomalies and let the human decide what works.

I first had a similar idea when I read about some guy who found an image of Jesus or Mary or somebody in a slab of marble. I was thinking you could have a vision system examine all of the marble slabs for faces and figures. Marble is a low-volume business though. Even better might be to install one of these at a sawmill and examine every plank of wood as it comes out of the planer.

8 Mark Thorson February 4, 2016 at 1:11 pm

Here’s the article I saw:

I think any AI that picks that stone out of the input stream is going to pick out at least 100 other stones that leave you scratching your head “What did the computer see?”. It will probably be necessary for the software to also provide an outline — here’s the eyes, here’s the chin, etc. Even then, a human will have to judge whether it’s really a hit or not.

9 Cass1an February 4, 2016 at 6:12 am

Many fossils are nature-made mineral “imprints” of life forms. The difference between gigantosaurous made from rubber by man and from stone by natural processes is narrower than one might think otherwise.

10 dearieme February 4, 2016 at 6:53 am

Snot fair. What about the women and eunuchs who collect dinosaurs?

11 John Mansfield February 4, 2016 at 9:19 am

Reading this, I heard the voice of David Wayne Starr, fictional middle school student in a Studio C comedy sketch. Sketch starts at 20:10.

12 MC February 4, 2016 at 3:16 pm

So this is one of those articles where a perfectly normal male impulse (“You know, if I were a multi-millionaire, it would be cool to own some dinosaur fossils”) is problematized and pathologized.

That Norell fellow in the article comes across as the worst kind of hipster. “Yeah, I have a job that millions of boys grew up wishing they had, but really I don’t see what the big deal is.”

13 Nathan W February 4, 2016 at 10:29 pm

It’s part of why I’m skeptical about virtual reality. I think we’re already pretty good at filling in the gaps more or less as we please.

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