Sunday, 15 January 2017

Devoted to dinosaurs: Joan Wiffen and the role of the amateur scientist

I was recently at a second hand book stall, browsing a first edition of Graeme Steven's Prehistoric New Zealand. The market stall owner told me that she had thumbed through the book and was amazed to learn that New Zealand had any wildlife prior to the moa. This seemingly widespread lack of knowledge about the nation's past is no doubt partially due to the small number of both practitioners and finds, although the state education system cannot be considered blameless. Still, in an age of easily-accessible information via the World Wide Web and the likes of the National Geographic Channel, such gaps do seem rather surprising.

Of course a lack of public knowledge concerning ancient life isn't restricted to New Zealand. I recall several amusing (yes, I know it sounds smug) encounters at London's Natural History Museum, where I discovered that parents of dinosaur-crazed children cannot differentiate giant ground sloths from dinosaurs, let alone bipedal carnosaurs from quadrupedal sauropods.

The poor understanding of New Zealand's past is exacerbated by the low population and correspondingly small amount of funding available. Therefore perhaps it's not surprising that amateurs have made significant discoveries, from the Hamilton Junior Naturalist Club's discovery of a giant penguin fossil at Kawhia to Joan Wiffen, the 'Hawke's Bay housewife' (an epithet that always causes me to grit my teeth) who discovered New Zealand's first dinosaur fossils and much more besides.

I've previously discussed the joys of amateur fossicking from a primarily fun aspect but also mentioned how New Zealand relies on non-professionals. The Kawhia penguin is a case in point, as it would have eroded within a year had it not been discovered. Indeed, I was recently collecting some Pleistocene marine molluscs above a Taranaki river valley, on a steep slope prone to severe flooding. These fossils had been uncovered following a landslide caused by a severe rainstorm in 2015 and would no doubt be washed away with the next one.

Fossil hunting in New Zealand

In addition to the lack of professionals, the discipline's funding within New Zealand has decreased over the past half century. The Marsden Fund is a key sponsor of science projects but less than 10% of proposals are successful. The obvious wider issue here is that for the foreseeable future there is unlikely to be any private funding for scientific research that isn't financially viable in the short-term; let's face it, most paleontology isn't going to earn big bucks. That isn't to say there aren't some income streams available, especially around museums, merchandise and occasionally site tourism. However, New Zealand's dinosaur, marine reptile and pterosaur remains are mostly isolated fragments, hardly likely to prove star attractions for even the most ardent dino enthusiast.

Which brings us back to Joan Wiffen. She went from a minimal secondary education (due to her father's prejudice) to an honorary science degree from Massey University - whilst still supporting the view that it is the duty of married women to do all the housework. Although she may not have actively negated the Hawke's Bay housewife appellation, the term is hardly suitable for an extremely conscientious scientist; after all, if her husband had been the team leader, he probably wouldn't have been referred to as a Hawke's Bay electronics technician!

Having recently finished reading Wiffen's 1991 book Valley of the Dragons: The Story of New Zealand's Dinosaur Woman I was struck by the obvious lack of professional expertise available in New Zealand as recently as the 1970s and 1980s. Even today, the thirty or so professional paleontologists in the country don't have their own organisation and fall under the auspices of the Geoscience Society of New Zealand. Yet I've long considered geology to be an extremely conservative discipline (think that meteorologist Alfred Wegener's continental drift hypothesis gained little traction for decades until evidence of plate tectonics was found, rather than there being any active interest in resolving the mystery) and so can do few favours to outsiders.

Therefore, Joan Wiffen faced almost complete indifference from scientists who proclaimed there were no relevant strata in which to locate dinosaur remains. Apparently someone had previously noticed reptilian bones in a Te Hoe Valley stream bed - which is what sparked off Wiffen's first expedition - but no-one had the interest or funding to follow it up. Her narrative hints at the disdain professionals felt for amateurs in general but happily this situation has changed markedly in the interim, with citizen science helping to bridge gaps in many fields. In the case of New Zealand paleontology, the notable finds by amateurs have included previously unknown species, adding to the evidence that areas of the 'lost' continent of Zealandia have been continually above water since the Mesozoic.

My recent Taranaki excursion was child's play compared to the deprivations Wiffen and co endured in their rat-infested self-built hut, not to mention funding the entire work themselves. From learning how to remove rock matrix via acetic acid (in an old baby bath, no less) to building a stereo microscope stand from a pillar drill base, the Hawke's Bay team certainly utilised classic kiwi number eight wire ingenuity.

In a pre-internet age - it took six months just to pin down the location and land owner of the area marked 'reptile bones' - gaining technical advice from foreign experts was slow and cumbersome. Ironically, in later years New Zealand professionals visited Wiffen's fossil preparation workshop to gain insight into their operation, including as to how she and her friends achieved such high standards. Clearly, her work wasn't the product of a casual dilettante but the output of a highly motivated and hard-working scientist, albeit an unpaid one.

The American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould frequently observed that his disciplines were forms of historical science, built upon a series of unrepeatable events created by the complex interaction of disparate factors. Therefore deposition and preservation - even the discovery - of fossils are unique circumstances; remains that are visible today may be little more than dust tomorrow. We owe Joan Wiffen and her colleagues an enormous debt for increasing the sum of human knowledge at their own time and expense, purely for the love of science. And if any Hawke's Bay residents want to pick up where she left off, then I'm sure both professionals and posterity would be most grateful!

Friday, 23 December 2016

O Come, All ye Fearful: 12 woes for Christmas future

This month I thought I would try and adopt something of the Yuletide spirit by offering something short and sharp (if not sweet) that bares a passing resemblance to the carol On the Twelve Days of Christmas. However, instead of gifts I'll be attempting to analyse twelve key concerns that humanity may face in the near future, some being more immediate - not to mention inevitable - than others.

I'll start off with the least probable issues then gradually work down to those most likely to have widespread effects during the next few decades. As it is meant to be a season of good cheer I'll even suggest a few solutions or mitigation strategies where these are applicable. The ultimate in low-carb gifts: what more could you ask for?

12: ET phones Earth. With the SETI Institute and Breakthrough Listen project leading efforts to pick up signals from alien civilisations, what are the chances that we might receive an extra-terrestrial broadcast in the near future? Although many people might deem this just so much science fiction, the contents of a translated message (or autonomous probe) could prove catastrophic. Whether it would spark faith-based wars or aid the development of advanced technology we couldn't control - or be morally fit enough to utilise - there may be as many negative issues as positive ones.

Solution: Keeping such information secret, especially the raw signal data, would be incredibly difficult. Whether an international translation project could be conducted in secret is another matter, with censorship allowing a regular trickle of the less controversial information into the public domain. Whilst this is the antithesis of good scientific practice, it could prove to be the best solution in the long term. Not that most politicians are ever able to see anything that way, however!

11. Acts of God. There is a multitude of naturally-occurring events that are outside of human control, both terrestrial (e.g. super volcano, tsunami) and extra-terrestrial, such as asteroid impacts. Again, until recently few people took much interest in the latter, although Hollywood generated some awareness via several rather poor movies in the late 1990s. The Chelyabinsk meteor of February 2013 (rather than meteorite, as most of the material exploded at altitude led to 1500 injuries, showing that even a small object that doesn't reach the ground intact can cause havoc. Since 2000, there have been over twenty asteroid impacts or atmospheric break-ups ranging from a kiloton up to half a megaton.

Solution: Although there are various projects to assess the orbits of near-Earth objects (NEOs), the development of technologies to deflect or destroy impactors requires much greater funding than is currently in place. Options range from devices that use just their velocity to knock NEOs off-course to the brute force approach of high-powered lasers and hydrogen bombs. However, with the cancellation of NASA's Ares V heavy launch vehicle it's difficult to see how such solutions could be delivered in time. Hopefully in the event something would be cobbled together pretty quickly!

10. Grey goo scenario. As defined by Eric Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation, what if self-replicating nanobots (developed for example, for medical purposes), break their programming and escape into the world, eating everything in their path? Similar to locust swarms, they would only be limited by the availability of raw materials.

Solution: The Royal Society's 2004 report on nanoscience declared that the possibility of von Neumann machines are some decades away and therefore of little concern to regulators. Since then, other research has suggested there should be limited need to develop such machines anyway. So that's good to know!

9. Silicon-destroying lifeforms. What if natural mutations lead to biological organisms that can seriously damage integrated circuitry? A motherboard-eating microbe would be devastating, especially in the transport and medical sectors, never mind the resulting communication network outages and financial chaos. This might sound as ridiculous as any low-grade science fiction plot, but in 1975 nylon-eating bacteria were discovered. Since then, research into the most efficient methods to recover metals from waste electronics have led to experiments in bioleaching. As well as bacteria, the fungus Aspergillus niger has been shown to breakdown the metals used in circuits.

Solution: As bioleaching is potentially cheaper and less environmentally damaging it could become widespread. Therefore it will be up to the process developers to control their creations. Fingers crossed, then!

8. NCB. Conventional weapons may be more common place, but the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons by rogue states and terrorist organisations is definitely something to be worried about. The International Atomic Energy Agency has a difficult time keeping track of all the radioactive material that is stolen or goes missing each year.  As the 1995 fatal release of the nerve agent sarin on the Tokyo subway shows, terrorists are not unwilling to use weapons of mass destruction on the general public.

Solution: There's not much I can suggest here. Let's hope that the intelligence services can keep all the Dr Evils at bay.

7. Jurassic Park for real. At Harvard last year a chicken embryo's genes were tweaked in such a way as to create a distinctly dinosaurian snout rather than a beak. Although it may be sometime before pseudo-velociraptors are prowling (high-fenced) reserves, what if genome engineering was used to develop Homo superior? A 2014 paper from Michigan State University suggests both intellectual and physical improvements via CRISPR-cas9 technology is just around the corner.

Solution: If the tabloids are to be believed (as if) China will soon be editing human genomes, to fix genetic diseases as well as generating enhanced humans. Short of war, what's to stop them?

Planet Earth wrapped as a Christmas present

6. DIY weaponry. The explosion in 3D printers for the domestic market means that you can now make your own handguns. Although current designs wear out after a few firings, bullets are also being developed that will work without limiting their lifespan. Since many nations have far more stringent gun laws than the USA, an increase in weaponry among the general public is just what we don't need.

Solution: how about smart locking systems on printers so they cannot produce components that could be used to build a weapon? Alternatively, there are now 3D printer models that can manufacture prototype bulletproof clothing. Not that I'd deem that a perfect solution!

5. Chemical catastrophe. There are plenty of chemicals no longer in production that might affect humanity or our agriculture. These range from the legacy effects of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), a known carcinogen, to the ozone depletion causing by CFCs, which could be hanging around the stratosphere for another century; this doesn't just result in increased human skin cancer - crops are also affected by the increased UVB.

Solution: we can only hope that current chemical development now has more rigorous testing and government regulation than that accorded to PCBs, CFCs, DDTs, et al. Let's hope all that health and safety legislation pays off.

4. The energy crisis. Apart from the obvious environmental issues around fossil fuels, the use of fracking generates a whole host of problems on its own, such as the release of methane and contamination of groundwater by toxic chemicals, including radioactive materials.

Solution: more funding is required for alternatives, especially nuclear fusion (a notoriously expensive area to research). Iceland generated 100% of its electricity from renewables whilst Portugal managed 4 consecutive days in May this year via wind, hydro, biomass and solar energy sources. Greater recycling and more incentives for buying electric and hybrid vehicles wouldn't hurt either!

3. Forced migration. The rise in sea levels due to melt water means that it won't just be Venice and small Pacific nations that are likely to become submerged by the end of the century. Predictions vary widely, but all in the same direction: even an increase of 150mm would be likely to affect over ten million people in the USA alone, with probably five times that number in China facing similar issues.

Solution: a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would seem to be the thing. This requires more electric vehicles and less methane-generating livestock. Arnold Schwarzenegger's non-fossil fuel Hummers and ‘Less meat, less heat, more life' campaign would appear to be good promotion for the shape of things to come - if he can be that progressive, there's hope for everyone. Then of course there's the potential for far more insect-based foodstuffs.

2. Food and water. A regional change in temperature of only a few degrees can seriously affect crop production and the amount of water used by agriculture. Over 700 million people are already without clean water, with shortages affecting agriculture even in developed regions - Australia and California spring to mind. Apparently, it takes a thousand litres of water to generate a single litre of milk!

Solution: A few far-sighted Australian farmers are among those developing methods to minimise water usage, including a few low-tech schemes that could be implemented anywhere. However, really obvious solutions would be to reduce the human population and eat food that requires less water. Again, bug farming seems a sensible idea.

1. Preventing vegegeddon. A former professor at Oxford University told me that some of his undergraduates have problems relating directly to others, having grown up in an environment with commonplace communication via electronic interfaces. If that's the problem facing the intellectual elite, what hope for the rest of our species? Physical problems such as poor eyesight are just the tip of the iceberg: the human race is in severe danger of degenerating into low-attention ‘sheeple' (as they say on Twitter). Children are losing touch with the real world, being enticed into virtual environments that on the surface are so much more appealing. Without knowledge or experience of reality, even stable democracies are in danger of being ruled by opportunistic megalomaniacs, possibly in orange wigs.

Solution: Richard Louv, author of  Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder suggests children require unstructured time out of doors in order to gain an (occasionally painful) understanding of  the real world; tree-climbing, fossicking, etc. Restricting time on electronic devices would seem to go hand in hand with this.

Well, that about wraps it up from me. And if the above seems somewhat scary, then why not do something about it: wouldn't working for a better future be the best Christmas present anyone could ever give?