28 June 2007

Santa Barbara

Here's a fun thought experiment: take the old phrase "heaven on Earth" and imagine for a moment what exactly that would look like. Have you conjured up perfect temperatures, sea breezes, beautiful buildings, abundant wildlife, and a horizon punctuated by mountains? If so, you've just imagined Santa Barbara, my home for the next month. It is very hard for any Northwesterner to admit that anywhere in Southern California could possibly be nice, let alone idyllic, but I have to confess that in this case it's true. It's not perfect, of course, but if you don't mind the occasional threat of earthquakes and have the money to survive in the opulent world of Santa Barbara, you'd be hard-pressed to find much better. Several of us spent today exploring the city, from the old Spanish mission down to the harbor and its massive wharf, and I'm sure that all of us could supply a long list of glowing adjectives to describe the experience. Incidentally, for those of you who think I'm making up that bit above about "abundant wildlife," in the last day I've seen lizards, a skunk, bats, dolphins, a bluebird, hummingbirds, pelicans, scrub jays (the last three birds aren't particularly rare, but they're all among my favorites, so I figured I'd list them anyway), and swallows galore, to say nothing of the floral extravaganza that is Santa Barbara. The only downside to spending a month in paradise? Most of that time will be spent indoors crunching numbers (tomorrow we begin morphometrics, hardly the most inspiring topic in paleontology). On the other hand, if it weren't for this all-expenses-paid course, I wouldn't be here to begin with, so it would be awfully stupid and ungracious of me to complain. Besides, it's hard to get too upset about anything in Santa Barbara...

27 June 2007

California Dreaming

Ah, California. If nothing else, it's a complex place. Even under ideal conditions it would be difficult to do the week or so I've spent here so far justice, and since I've spent that week alternating between mile-a-minute touring and mind-numbing classwork, I really haven't had time to try. Rather than attempting to sum it all up (I'll save that for future posts when my thoughts are more collected), I'll take the old saw that a picture is worth a thousand words at face value. Fortunately, since California is among the most photogenic states, I have several pictures to put into the slideshow above and I can keep my words to a minimum (check out my Picasa site of you want to see the still versions). Stay tuned for updates; there will be many as this long, strange trip continues...

23 June 2007

On the Road Again

I'm writing this entry as I wait for everyone else to wake up on a perfect morning in Oakland, California. Today is the third day of summer, which means my summer as a nomad is well underway. Last week it was Seattle and Lopez, this week I'm en route to Santa Barbara by way of the Bay Area. I'll be in California for the next month and a half before heading back north the eastern Oregon, as close to the middle of nowhere as you'd ever hope to find. Living on the road like this is a new experience for me, but I'm looking forward to it. After all, there's nothing I enjoy more than travel, and for all intents and purposes I'll be traveling nonstop for the next month. Should be fun, especially if the California weather lives up to its reputation (living in a consistently sunny and warm climate will also be a new experience for me after Seattle, Chicago, Bristol, and Oregon)...

19 June 2007

Feathered dinosaurs invade Seattle!

Today I paid a visit to my old stomping grounds, the Pacific Science Center, and after doing so I feel obliged to put in a plug for them. If any of you have an interest in paleontology and are in the Seattle area, I heartily recommend their current exhibit on dinosaurs. There are several skeletons and casts of large Chinese dinosaurs (Mamenchisaurus, Tsintaosaurus, and the like) as well as a nice display on dinosaur eggs, but the real reason to go is for the several specimens from Liaoning. Liaoning, for those of you outside the paleontological loop, is a region in northeastern China that first came to international attention in the early 1990s. It's a lagerstätte (a site of exceptional fossil preservation) that has yielded, among other things, many exquisitely preserved birds and feathered dinosaurs. It was these specimens, in fact, that effectively ended the debate over whether birds evolved from dinosaurs (to say nothing of the fact that they're some of the most beautiful fossils you'll ever see). The exhibit at PSC runs the gamut from the dinosaur Sinosauropteryx to the true birds Sapeornis (one of the most primitive birds known), Confuciusornis, and Yixianornis. Considering their scientific, monetary, and even cultural value (paleontology is very closely tied to nationalism in China), it is rare for the Chinese government to allow Liaoning fossils out of the country, and it may be a long time before they make their appearance in the Great Northwest again. So, for those of you with the time and inclination, a trip would be well worth your while.

12 June 2007

England Revisited

I was doing a little spring cleaning and organization of my iPhoto library today, and I came across several pictures from Britain that I had completely forgotten about, including these gems. If you like them, there's lots more where they came from on my Flickr site. Incidentally, I think it's quite a testament to the English climate that these two pictures were taken on the same day.

02 June 2007

The Godfather of Oregon Paleontology

Our department had its annual end of the year picnic and awards ceremony yesterday and I was (somewhat unexpectedly) the recipient of the Thomas Condon Fellowship for the work I'll be doing in eastern Oregon the latter half of the summer. The money is nice, of course, but it's also an honor just to have my name associated with Thomas Condon. He's a figure who hasn't ever gotten much press outside of Oregon, but he was an excellent vertebrate paleontologist and a complex individual. He was born in Ireland in 1822, but spent most of his life in the US as a minister and scientist (he purchased an early copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species and rumor has it that it was the only book other than the Bible that he always carried with him). Condon saw no conflict between faith and science, considering (correctly, in my opinion) that each represented its own distinct sphere. After moving to Oregon in 1852 as a missionary, he began to make a special study of the state's paleontology, eventually becoming the first professor of geology at the University of Oregon and a hugely important figure in this state's scientific history. He collaborated in his research with several of the biggest names in 19th Century paleontology (most notably March and Cope of "Bone Wars" fame). Condon's name is most often associated with the John Day region in central Oregon, where he collected huge numbers of fossils that still form the core of the university's collection. Appropriately enough, the fellowship I just received will go towards funding the preliminary work I'll be doing on my dissertation project in those very same John Day Fossil Beds. Besides just proving that there are very few degrees of separation between any two figures in paleontology, receiving this fellowship is certainly a bit of good news, and as clichéd as it may sound, I do look forward to following in Thomas Condon's footsteps.