29 December 2009

2009: The Year In...

...The Northwest
It was a bad year to be a mayor, both in Seattle and in Portland. However, not too much sympathy was lost on Mayors Nickels and Adams, as the economic recession reached (hopefully) rock bottom, particularly in Oregon, and the region's largest city lost a long-time news source. On the plus side, Seattle opened its long-awaited (and desperately-needed) light rail system and it became fun to be a fan of the Mariners and Blazers again. Sticking with sports, it was also the best time in years to be a Duck (who played probably their biggest game ever this December after a disastrous start to the season).

The biggest science story in 2009 was something that happened 150 years ago. This was Darwin Year, a chance to celebrate the 200th birthday of a great scientist and the sesquicentennial of his epochal work. It was also a chance to take stock of the standing of evolution today. As a theory, it remains sound, well-supported, and a scientific fact. As far as teaching and public acceptance of it, though, the US continues to lag well behind the rest of the developed world. However, for the first time in a long while, pro-science education groups were able to make themselves heard above the ravings of the "intelligent design" community; let's hope this trend continues into 2010 and beyond. Anyone questioning the value of evolutionary theory should take a look at the major role it played in understanding and mitigating the effects of the swine flu pandemic that swept across the world this year.
There were, of course, other science stories in 2009, particularly related to ongoing global climate change and the major conference addressing the topic at year's end in Copenhagen. My favorite discovery of the year, though, was tool-use in octopi, the first time such complex behavior has been observed in any invertebrate.

Paleontology is (or at least should be) measured by the theories generated by paleontologists, not by the number of new species described. That said, fossils form the backbone of our science, and it can't be denied that there were several spectacular new fossils described this year. Some of these (Darwinius and Raptorex, for example) were cool but probably overhyped (though having paleontology in the news is never a bad thing). Ardipithecus, on the other hand, is probably worth all the attention it got. Some extremely important marine mammal fossils (the otter-like pinniped Puijila and the pregnant whale Maiacetus) came to light this year, and probably didn't generate as much excitement as they should have. Far and away my favorite new fossil organism is the giant snake Titanoboa (the description of which came complete with an interesting but, sadly, flawed method of using snake size as a climatic proxy).

My year can be summed up in two words: travel and research. I spent a week in May in New York, a month on the road to Cincinnati and back, a couple of days in Copenhagen, a couple of weeks in Ireland, and a week at my old home in Bristol. Along the way I measured hundreds of mammal teeth and presented some preliminary results from my various research projects at four different conferences. I also submitted my first paper and my second NSF grant proposal, both of which I have high (and hopefully not naive) hopes of seeing come to fruition in the coming year. The NSF grant was just rejected today, so there's one bit of optimism that won't carry on into the new year. Oh well.

...Reflecting on the Aughts
It only came to my attention about a week ago that this was the end of a decade (depending on how you measure these things, of course). Despite my avowed effort to try to steer away from self-reflection on this blog, it really does boggle the mind a bit to look back on a what really has been a momentous ten years, both historically and personally. For my part, on this date in 1999 I had just finished my first quarter of college and was en route to visit my grandmother on Lopez Island (and, it so transpired, to see a fireworks show that put Seattle's to shame). I was just coming to realize how difficult it is to leave the place you grew up and to which you will always feel a profound connection. I was also just beginning to dip my toes into the world of academic paleontology (which, at the time, I thought would end with me working on early dinosaurs). Today, I have recently returned from Lopez (some things never change). I've found at least a temporary home back in the Northwest, and I'm a PhD candidate fully immersed in the world of paleontology. In the interim, I've shifted my focus from dinosaurs to the paleoecology of mammals (much less charismatic but much more interesting). I've travelled the US and the world; I even moved to England for a year for a masters degree. Like many people, I wallowed in depression and fear after 9/11, but not long after I experienced what have been, to date, the happiest times of my life while working at the Pacific Science Center. I've lost family members and seen my best friends get married and begin families of their own. I've experienced love, both requited and unrequited, joy and grief, hope and despair. I'm not sure if everything I've seen and done this decade has made me a better person (I'm sure it's made me more cynical, but I'm not convinced that's an entirely bad thing) but I am sure that's it's been an incredible ride (and I mean literally incredible: if you'd told me what was in store back in 1999, I likely would not have believed you). Regardless of their effect on me, and at the risk of sounding trite, I wouldn't exchange my experience in the Aughts for anything, and I hope that the 2010s will be equally interesting (in the good sense of the word, of course) for me and for all you readers out there.