The summer after my second year as an undergraduate I had the amazing opportunity of a summer job, working in the Natural History Museum, at the Department of Palaeontology. It was an excellent introduction to fossils for this wannabe palaeontologist. My job was to reorganize the collection of pteraspid fishes according to a newly published thesis. Pteraspids were armoured, jawless fishes that lived in the Devonian Period. Because their bony head-shields are the parts of these creatures that preserve the best as fossils, it is these that are used to classify them. Working on pteraspids essentially means improving one’s sensitivity to the distinctive curves, shapes and lines of each head-shield.
After a couple of weeks of spending several hours each day looking at pteraspid head-shields, I started to see them wherever I looked – in puddles, in the shapes of clouds, in oil-stains on pavements – and so clearly that I could identify them to species. I quickly realized how important pattern-recognition is to palaeontology, and perhaps science – but how easy it is to see patterns in structures where no patterns are there – from Lowell’s canals on Mars, to images of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast.
I contend that the human urge to see patterns might lie behind the tendency in evolutionary biologists to pick out, if they aren’t careful, evolutionary trends according more to their prejudices rather than the facts on the ground, one of the themes of a lecture I’m giving on Tuesday…
But I digress.
I have just come back from the beach, whereupon on the sand, notwithstanding inasmuch as which, this pattern shone out at me like a beacon.
boring sensible people would look at that and say, aha, a soccer ball caught in mid-bounce. But who of us on OT wouldn’t take one look at this and say ‘purine nucleus’?