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The "Art" of Paleontology
This is to the list, but involveds Toby White and
Matt Bonnan especially, and I'm replying to their
off-list discussion here for purposes of presenting my
As an artist, I have the odd habit of thinking
visually. Oh well. I have difficulty reading long
streams of descriptive text without visuals aids. I
hate it. Still, on occasion, I come across the
occassional paper with perhaps one figure but loads
(and I mean loads, sensu Karen Chin) of text,
descriptive nonetheless that, while dry, is
descriptive. Examples are a lot of the Russian _Trudy
-- SSMPE_ and _Dokladii Akedyemia Nauk_ papers where
figures are sacrificed (not so good, anyway) in favor
of the description, but perhaps also not so good in
light of today's standards.
Some of the best papers I've read have little in the
way of illustrations, such as Borsuk-Bialynika on
*Opisthocoelicaudia*, Holtz on the Tyrannosauridae,
and were composed almost entirely of text and
analysis. Imagery helps to aid the mind to understand
the dry descriptive jargon used. Problem is, somewhere
(and I guess a lot of us approached paleo from the
visual standpoint originally?) the emphasis did turn
to children's books laden with pictures, and the
popular press, which had previously known little on
dinosaurs, was inundated with these "fanciful,
imaginitive-looking monsters" and there may be some
retained negativity going back to yesterwhen on
dealing with the titans.
On dealing with names, the taxa described during the
infamous Bone Wars emphasized descriptive names
(though someone pointed out Cope's "little joke" on
that wonderful taxonomy as humor website) like
*Amphicoelias*, *Polyonax*, *Mesodma*, *Ichthyornis*,
etc., that really did describe the dinosaur, mammal,
bird well, if not completely. Five sauropods were
named for their "effect": *Brontosaurus*,
*Rhoetosaurus*, *Gondwanatitan*, Wedel et al.'s (in
press) new Oklahoma taxon, and *Seismosaurus*, for the
giant, titanic, earth shaking power they possessed. So
how many ways can you describe "big"? And then, they
monographed these things, so that a thourough
description (such as Riggs' work on *Brachisaurus*)
could be performed, and with relatively little
artistic support or public hurrah we must endure now.
And we use these papers well.
Of course, I cannot help but draw or reconstruct the
newest dinosaurs, but I thrill at the strangest aspect
of some new dinosaur's anatomy, not their overall
appearance, and as such find general artistic
presentations annoying. I like to see the sharp,
posteromedial crest of therizinosaurid humeri, or the
curious anterodorsal curvature of the transverse
processes of *Carnotaurus* caudals, the multi-divided
external nares of *Pinacosaurus*, or the bizzare tail
of *Tuojiangosaurus*, full of nuances.
Art plays a role in many sciences, and physicists
may use it on occasion, but point out a particle
physics paper in _Science_ using someone's artistic
interpretation of the photon? Some sciences do not
accomodate art well, others do, and paleontology
requires the visual demonstration of its work to
broadcast the impressions of the authors. Okay, I have
some paleoecology papers almost devoid of figures.
They don't neccessarily need them, and I can read
several Farlow paleoecology papers without visual
aids, for fun, and now Vermeij...
Sure, there's entertainment value to paleontology,
but that's secondary to the science itself and arose
after the advent and rise of the practice and science.
Thus it can be assumed that science and art in
paleontology are separate entities. One appeals to the
logistic, the other to the imaginitive. They are in
some ways indeluctibly linked, for one can inspire the
other in some unrestrained people.
Jaime "James" A. Headden
"Come the path that leads us to our fortune."
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