My plan to visit Toronto now accomplished, I can tell you something of what I did in that great city.
Toronto, yesterday (no, really).
I had been invited by the students and faculty of the University of Toronto Mississauga to give a lecture. Now, we Nature editors do this sort of thing quite often. Given that every scientist wants to publish in prestige journals such as Nature and Science, and given that divining the inner workings of such journals is very often something akin to kremlinology, it’s part of our remit to show that (a) we Nature editors are only human; (b) the processes whereby we select manuscripts for publication are logical, if not always infallible; (c) Er … (d) That’s it.
When I give my Nature lecture I usually just turn up, and without the benefit of any extra A/V, or even a safety net, open my mouth in the hope that something more or less intelligible will emerge. This time my hosts asked me to deliver a slightly more formal presentation, with slides, so I spent a happy couple of days preparing the presentation, and, on Friday, delivered it. By the magic of teh interwebz, the lecture was webcast throughout the University of Toronto System – including its main campus and the campus at Scarborough, Ontario, and news of it even reached the Royal Ontario Museum, of which more anon. The webcast is now online so you can see the lecture for yourself; the whole thing lasts just over 50 minutes. My penchant for being a monster of vanity and arrogance notwithstanding, the more people see this lecture, the better to shine light into the darkness, dehumidify the sanctimonious fundament of, well, whatever.
So much for Friday1.
On Saturday, among other things, I visited the aforementioned Royal Ontario Museum, which houses an immense collection of hadrosaurs, the cattle of the Cretaceous, excavated from dinosaur-rich Alberta. I had never seen these creatures close-up, so hadn’t really appreciated how beautiful they are.
Behind the scenes I was very privileged to have a tour of the iconic Burgess Shales fossils from British Columbia. These fossils represent a snapshot of sea life like what she was lived some 505 million years ago, in the Cambrian Period. The fossils include trilobites – like many other faunas of the period – but the unique style of preservation, in which creatures were suddenly entombed in an undersea mudslide, has allowed the exquisite preservation of the soft parts of the creatures. This means that you find fossils in the Burgess that are rarely, if ever, found elsewhere, and many are truly strange, very hard to relate to any creatures living today. The late, great Stephen Jay Gould made capital of this weirdness in his book Wonderful Life. Since then, detailed work on the fossils – and new excavations – have allowed palaeontologists to relate some of the fossil crazies to extant groups. For example, the predator Anomalocaris is a wayward kind of early arthropod; Hallucigenia is related to velvet-worms, and so on.
However, the more that people have excavated in the near-inaccessible localities, high in the Rockies, the more strange fossils have come to light. The Burgess collections are still full of fossils that defy all attempts at interpretation. And not just ones and twos, but hundreds. Gould might have the last laugh after all.
Great fossils are like great art. No amount of postcard reproductions can ever prepare you for exposure to the real thing. And to a palaeo fanboy like myself, the Burgess Shales are like all the world’s great art rolled into one, from Botticelli to Braque, Rembrandt to Rothko. It took me a full 24 hours to decompress. Truly, I am not worthy.
Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank the faculty, staff and students at UT and also at ROM for inviting me and for giving so generously of their time and hospitality.
1 Actually, I did more things on Friday than give a lecture. I visited labs, too. That also goes with the job. But if I told you any more than that, I’d have to kill you.