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Re: The (long) future of paleontology



> --- Ursprüngliche Nachricht ---
> Von: dannj@alphalink.com.au
> Datum: Tue, 17 Jan 2006 09:20:19 +1000
>
> such practically 'useless' fields as palaeontology (which will never
> cure dieases, feed the starving, etc) that rely more on satisfying
> human curosity than need.

Don't you say that.

Think of paleoclimatology. What is the world like when it is, say, on 
average 5 °C warmer than today? A very big part of the answer is to look 
back instead of forwards, _find_ some time in Earth history which was that 
warm, and research it. Will the deserts disappear? Did they disappear the 
last 10 times? ...

Or think of evolution. Pathogens and food crops evolve. Paleontology tells 
us a lot about evolution, such as whether supposed internal driving 
mechanisms like the Cope-Depéret "law" are real (kindly note the blatant 
self-advertising here).

Paleontology is basic research. Its useful outcomes are unpredictable. Do 
you know the story how we got radio and TV? A theoretical physicist named 
Hertz knew that Maxwell's equations of electromagnetics predicted, among 
lots of known effects, the existence of electromagnetic waves -- bizarre 
things that propagate through vacuum -- and wanted to put the last little 
building block into the theory. So he conducted a little experiment that 
looked pretty useless -- who's interested in the oddities of math (aka 
"higher nonsense"). Indeed he found the waves... I don't know who got the 
idea of using them.

On this computer a program called Bone Profiler is installed. You give it 
a black-and-white picture of the cross-section of a bone shaft, and it 
gives you a lot of measurements on the compacticity and other mathematical 
properties of the bone. It is currently in use to infer the lifestyle 
(from aquatic to terrestrial) of fossil tetrapods. Off the top of my head 
I'll just say "osteoporosis".

(As for feeding the starving... remember that the UN found out just a few 
months ago that there's currently enough food in the world for TWELVE 
billion people -- a number that we _won't_ reach at least within this 
century. What is missing is not food for the starving but _money_ for the 
starving.)

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