Reviews: Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology

Discover reviews the hottest science books and museums for May 2003.

May 1, 2003 5:00 AMMay 8, 2023 4:38 PM


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Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology The Ghost Ranch Abiquiu, New Mexico

The land at the Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico has many stories to tell, but let's start with the enormous dinosaur burial ground. In 1947 Edwin Colbert, a paleontologist from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, led a fossil-hunting expedition into the desert about 60 miles north of Santa Fe. Near the tiny town of Abiquiu, on a remote dude ranch, Colbert made one of the most spectacular finds in the history of paleontology. On an exposed cliff face, in a layer of 215-million-year-old mudstone no more than two feet thick, he discovered a mass grave containing hundreds of dinosaur skeletons packed together, many almost perfectly complete. At the time they were the earliest complete dinosaur fossils on record, dating from the end of the Triassic Period. Nearly every single skeleton belonged to just one genus, Coelophysis. The agile, bipedal predator, not much taller than a small child, was the forerunner of giants that would make the earth tremble for the next 150 million years.

While Colbert was digging his dinosaurs, a reclusive resident of Ghost Ranch worked nearby, making her own careful study of the desert's secrets, observing its magnificent sky, its flowers, buttes, and bleached cattle bones with a mystic's passion. In time, Georgia O'Keeffe would become another Ghost Ranch legend. She lived on or near the ranch until 1984, constantly seeking and finding fresh perspectives in the ancient terrain.

Ghost Ranch remains a land beyond time. A visitor quickly discovers that the bold streaks of color in O'Keeffe's paintings were not an exaggeration. Indeed, Earth's ages are starkly reflected in the white limestone remnants of seabeds and the red and yellow sandstone bluffs that were desert dunes when dinosaurs walked this land. O'Keeffe's house still stands, not far from one of the world's richest dinosaur fossil beds. The former dude ranch is now a retreat center owned by the Presbyterian Church, and it remains a powerful draw for artists and paleontologists alike. It remains a shrine to Coelophysis, New Mexico's official state fossil, complete with a small but fascinating adobe museum built around an eight-ton block of fossil-laden mudstone quarried from the same cliff first excavated by Edwin Colbert.

Although the museum could fit inside a typical Manhattan apartment—the fossil block occupies about a quarter of the floor space—it provides a concise glimpse of a time when dinosaurs were a new and not yet dominant fauna. In the late Triassic, the Ghost Ranch land was part of a river valley surrounded by hot plains. Coelophysis shared the turf—and now display space at the museum—with phytosaurs, 30-foot-long killers that resembled giant crocodiles. But Coelophysis was clearly the shape of things to come. Unlike nearly all the other Triassic animals from the Ghost Ranch rocks, the nimble creature was unarmored and weighed in at about 50 pounds. Coelophysis, which means "hollow form," had hollow bones, like those of birds. Alex Downs, the resident paleontologist at Ghost Ranch, thinks it may have been feathered.

The sheer number of Coelophysis skeletons found at Ghost Ranch—there are probably thousands of them—has mystified paleontologists since Colbert's day. Why were so many predators concentrated along a narrow river valley? Meat eaters today may team up in small groups, but never in huge herds. Did Coelophysis hunt in enormous packs? Was it a trait related to the flocking behavior of birds? Or were these dinosaurs just exploiting the river, snatching fish with their three-fingered hands when they drowned in a flash flood?

You can ponder those questions on trails near the museum, one of which leads to a steep hill where many Coelophysis fossils were found. On the way, the awe-inspiring landscape will tell you more stories. You'll see Pedernal, a mesa that was one of O'Keeffe's favorite subjects. "It's my private mountain," she said. "God told me if I painted it often enough I could have it." While you can easily get through the Ghost Ranch museum in an hour, you'll want to give yourself at least a day in this country. Consider O'Keeffe's example. She came in 1934 and stayed for 50 years.


The Volcano Heard Round the World Krakatoa triggered tsunamis and torrential telegraph chatter

By Robert Kunzig

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 By Simon Winchester HarperCollins, $25.95

The place to be when Krakatoa erupted in 1883, if you had to be nearby, was on a ship at sea. One of the more interesting passages in Simon Winchester's new book comes from a contemporaneous interview with W. J. Watson, a ship's captain who was only 10 miles away, closer than any other survivor. After the mercifully uninhabited island had exploded into the stratosphere and collapsed into the sea, making what Winchester says was the loudest noise ever heard by human beings, all Watson had to worry about was a thick coat of ash and mud on his deck and rigging—no injuries to his crew, no serious damage to the Charles Bal. Instead, the damage was done on either side of the Sunda Strait, on the coasts of Sumatra and Java, and it was done primarily by tsunamis. Those giant sea waves, some higher than 135 feet when they swept onto the land, washed away 165 villages, Winchester writes, and at least 35,500 people. For days afterward, ships that had ridden out the eruption at sea—the waves were much lower there—collided with floating corpses. Nearly a year later, a giant raft of Krakatoa pumice washed up on the shore of Zanzibar, 3,000 miles away off East Africa, where it was found by schoolchildren. It carried a load of skeletons.

After chronicling the birth of modern geology in The Map That Changed the World, Winchester now gives us "the day the world exploded," and he certainly has collected lots of rich material. Much of it, though, is only tangentially related to his subject. If you think a book on Mount Saint Helens should begin at Plymouth Rock, then this is the Krakatoa book for you. Winchester begins with 50 pages on the spice trade and the Dutch settlement of Indonesia. He then provides a long, eccentric, and largely irrelevant history of the theory of plate tectonics. By the time you get to 1883, you're at page 149—and you're still only in February, with six months and a charming but overdramatized story about a circus elephant to go before the action starts.

In the single long chapter that Winchester devotes to the eruption, there is a lot of fascinating detail. But even here he undermines his narrative with flabby, repetitious writing and pedantic digressions. After planting in our minds the arresting image of skeletons floating on rafts of pumice, for instance, he pauses for a lecture on the many uses of pumice and other volcanic stones. In contrast, he never finds time to adequately explain how the eruption triggered the tsunamis that killed all those people.

Winchester makes two big claims for the historical significance of Krakatoa. First, he says, it marked the founding of "the global village." Because the first transoceanic telegraph cables had only recently been laid, the 1883 eruption was the first catastrophe that people around the world heard about immediately. But he doesn't document his assertion that the effect on them was profound. Second, Winchester claims that the eruption helped trigger a one-day rebellion five years later in which Muslims in western Java massacred a group of Dutch residents and their servants—24 people in all. The evidence is feeble, and the suggestion that this incident has something to teach us in the post-9/11 world feels extremely forced.

The pity is that Winchester is capable of much better. The book should have been at least 100 pages shorter. But it should also have contained a lot more prose on a par with Winchester's surprising epilogue, in which he turns the obligatory author's visit to the scene where the saga unfolded into something lovely—graceful, vivid, and understated.


Forces of Nature A toy mimics the biological architecture of human cells

By William Jacobs

Tensegritoy Design Science, $ Under pressure? Feeling tense? You're not alone; every cell in your body is feeling the same way. While the man-made world is built using either tension (for example, suspension bridges) or compression (brick walls), the biological architecture of our cells uses a combination of both called tensegrity. Architect Buckminster Fuller coined the term tensegrity, short for "tensional integrity," to describe a method he developed for constructing surprisingly strong and flexible buildings that seem to float in space. Fuller got the idea from sculptor Kenneth Snelson, who was the first to use this principle in his work. His tensegrity sculptures look like three-dimensional exploded diagrams built of metal poles and tensioned wire: beautiful to look at, but a cold and distant beauty.

Now Design Science Toys offers Tensegritoy—tensegrity you can get your hands on. The materials themselves are simple: wooden struts, elastic cords, and plastic caps to keep things in place. The clever bit is the system of notches and holes in the struts that allow the cords to be strung with the appropriate tensions for various needs.

The set comes with detailed instructions for building three basic structures—a tetrahedron, an octahedron, and an icosahedron. (Alas, guidelines for creating many other polyhedrons are hopelessly abbreviated and opaque.) An octahedron displayed on your office desk is a guaranteed conversation starter. The materials are flexible and durable enough that you can playfully squash one of your creations or bounce it around the room, and a 31-page booklet gives plenty of background on the underlying science. So when your sculpture flexes right back into shape, you'll know just what principles of tensegrity you've demonstrated.


The Beauty of Phenomena: Art in the Communication of Science National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C. Through September 12 "I work on things that literally can't be seen, so I've devised impressionistic ways of visualizing them," says artist Eric J. Heller, a professor of physics and chemistry at Harvard University. His computer-generated images of the quantum world—including Caustic IV, above—are among the works featured in The Beauty of Phenomena: Art in the Communication of Science, at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. "These scientists are exploring the intermingling of art and science rather than drawing lines between the two," says exhibit curator Janis Tomlinson. Heller, for instance, uses computer algorithms to simulate quantum phenomena like electrons moving over a potential landscape and then tweaks the resulting images by adding color and defining edges. His forays into the world of art even aid his scientific research. While making one set of images, he discovered new properties of quantum waves trapped between walls. — Jennifer Ouellette

Science Best-sellers

1. Faster than the Speed of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation By João Magueijo, Perseus 2. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain By Antonio Damasio, Harcourt 3. The Universe in a Nutshell/illustrated Brief History of Time (boxed set) By Stephen Hawking, Bantam 4. The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story By Richard Preston, Random House 5. The Constants of Nature: From Alpha to Omega— the Numbers That Encode the Deepest Secrets of the Universe By John D. Barrow, Pantheon 6. Rational Mysticism: Dispatches From the Border Between Science and Spirituality By John Horgan, Houghton Mifflin 7. Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age By Duncan J. Watts, W. W. Norton 8. The Life and Death of Planet Earth By Peter Ward and Don Brownlee, Times Books 9. The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Obsession, Perfume, and the Last Mystery of the Senses By Chandler Burr, Random House 10. E=mc2: The Great Ideas That Shaped Our World By Pete Moore, Friedman/FairfaxExclusive to Discover from Barnes & Noble Booksellers

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