22 July 2007

Thar she blows!

All my life I've wanted to see a blue whale. They are one of the ultimate superlatives of the natural world, the largest animal - and one of the largest organisms of any kind - that has ever existed. Every school child has heard all the relevant stats. They weigh as much as 200 tons and grow to over 100 feet in length, larger than any dinosaur currently known. Their tongue weighs as much as an elephant, the heaviest animal on land. Even newborn calves are larger than most animals (and are in fact larger than the adults of many other whale species). Simply put, there is not now, nor has there ever been, anything quite like a blue whale on this planet, and with my taste for the sublime, it should come as no surprise that I've always wanted to see one. Today, I got my wish. Blue whales are, of course, quite rare, but for whatever reason they congregate in Santa Barbara Channel each summer. I took advantage of our first two-day break of the course to go on a whale-watching trip this morning, and while the price was steep, it turned out to be well worth it. We saw at least two blue whales, and it's true: they really are massive (and they really are blue, too). The picture above does not, I'm afraid, do them any justice at all, but I can now say with authority that watching a blue whale dive is one of nature's greatest spectacles. The trip would have been worthwhile if we had only seen the whales, but there was even more. We also saw a pod of Risso's dolphins feeding around our boat, a school of ocean sunfish (the largest bony fish, though these were just juveniles), lots of sea lions, and Painted Cave (a massive sea cave beneath Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands). I like to flatter myself that I've seen several examples of nature at its most spectacular (the Victorian coast in Australia, the redwoods of Northern California, and of course the volcanoes of the Northwest, to name a few), and I can confidently say that today's trip ranked among those. The only downside will be returning to class tomorrow: with apologies to Hans, the world of data analysis just isn't quite exhilarating as that of giant whales and cloud-shrouded island wildernesses...

15 July 2007

Los Angeles

Growing up anywhere on the West Coast, you are raised to hate everything about Los Angeles. It's portrayed as an ugly, sprawling, polluted, hedonistic cultural wasteland, a stereotype to which I have always wholeheartedly subscribed. However, since I've been enjoying life in Santa Barbara so much, my outlook on Southern California has improved remarkably, and I was even beginning to worry that I might find myself feeling kindly disposed towards LA. I put that to the test yesterday when we made a trip into town, and I'm proud to say that those fears were unjustified: I still hate Los Angeles. It's still ugly (with a few admittedly nice areas like 3rd Street in Santa Monica and Beverley Hills), it's sprawling more than ever, its skies are still gray with smog, and it's still rife with self-indulgence (though some of this hedonism takes an almost pathetically banal form, most glaringly evident in Hollywood, which is shockingly seedy and seems to have more strip clubs and porn stores than movie theaters).
This all may sound very negative, but I do have a few good things to say about LA. First off, it's the only city that I know of that has a fossil site of international importance within its borders (the La Brea Tar Pits). Being paleontologists as we are, the entire purpose of our trip was to see the tar pits, and it was time well-spent (I especially like the wall of dire wolf skulls pictured at right, one of the cooler fossil displays I've ever seen). The park in which the tar pits are located is an experience in and of itself, especially when you come across a spot where an asphalt seep is bubbling up in the middle of a lawn; it's not the best place for a nap. You can also get good food at almost any hour in LA, which was very nice after our previous night's experience of trying to find somewhere to get food after 9:00 in Goleta.
Those last couple of items might sound like platitudes, but LA does have one thing that no other city in the world can match: the Getty Center. The center is an art museum and institute sitting on a crag of the Santa Monica Mountains above Beverley Hills, and I can honestly say it is one of the most amazing places I've ever been. The art is very nice, of course, but the structure is the real reason to visit. It's an acropolis of white travertine accessible only by train and surrounded by fantastic gardens. Needless to say, the views are outstanding as well. I'm fairly certain that my words can't do it justice, and my photos fall well short of capturing the full effect too. Suffice it to say, it's worth going out of your way to see if you ever get the chance. If nothing else, it proves that even if LA is still ugly, sprawling, polluted, and hedonistic, it at least can't be considered a complete cultural wasteland anymore. So there you go, something positive about LA. Maybe I am getting soft after all...

01 July 2007

Analytical Paleobiology

Hans' comment on my last post made me realize not only that I probably sounded like I was complaining about my coursework this summer, but that I never did a very thorough job of explaining exactly why I'm spending my summer in Southern California to begin with. My (almost) all-expenses-paid trip to Santa Barbara is courtesy of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a think-tank affiliated with UC Santa Barbara that each summer offers what I believe is the only course in analytical paleobiology in the world. The subject matter may sound less than thrilling, but it is extremely relevant. For decades, paleontology - and in particular vertebrate paleontology - has languished in the realm of observational science: people would go out to the field, collect some fossils, describe them, and leave it at that. Even the so-called "Dinosaur Renaissance" of the late 20th Century consisted mainly of an increase in discovery and description rather than being marked by a shift in analytical techniques (and for all you smart-asses out there, yes, I realize this is an oversimplification and that researchers such as G.G. Simpson were outstanding theoretical paleontologists long before the modern era; still, on the whole, I think my assertion stands). Fortunately, in recent years a greater emphasis has been placed upon interpretation of data in an effort to discern large-scale trends in ecology and evolution. Of course, any such effort requires statistics, and lots of them (though, as always, quality is much more important than quantity). Such methods are anathema to many of the old guard in paleontology (partly, I expect, because they lack the glamor of field work), but they are essential in detecting patterns in the fossil record (which, as I've argued before, really is the point of science). The purpose of this course is to give us all a baptism by fire into the the world of analytical paleobiology. Several paleontologists from across the country are flown in to teach five-day modules, each focusing on a particular field. This week's topic, for example, is morphometrics, the quantitative study of fossil shape. It's a field I came into the course knowing very little about, and even a couple of lectures have made it clear to me that it's far more complex than I had ever realized (the highlight so far has been making silhouettes of rodent jaws for analysis, such as the one above). In later sessions we start delving into the far more convoluted world of ecology and evolution. It will no doubt get very confusing, but don't for a minute get fooled into thinking I hate the experience. Nothing could be further from the truth.