The Bone Wars

Marsh and Cope Have a Falling Out

The Marsh-Cope Feud

Beware of Humans

There's one field of geology notably unrepresented at the United States Geological Survey: paleontology. This seems like a fairly major omission, and it's all thanks to a series of events known as the Bone Wars.

During the Gilded Age (the last thirty years or so of the 1800s in America), paleontology was an incredibly competitive field. At the time, we collected dinosaur fossils more rapidly than ever before. Two figures stood out above all the rest—Edward Drinker Cope, of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and Othniel Charles Marsh.

Marsh and Cope began as friends when they first met in Berlin (Germany has always been a paleontological treasure trove), but their relationship began to sour quickly. By the early 1870s, things heated up to an absurd degree. A series of mishaps, oddities, and minor snubs, along with the fundamentally incompatible personalities of the two men, irrevocably ruined things between them.

In 1873, the Bone Wars began in earnest. The first shots fired were academic ones: renaming and reclassifying species to mess with the other, publicly pointing out one another's errors, and the like.

If things had stayed like that, it wouldn't have made history the way it did; academic rivalries are, as they say, a dime a dozen. However, the confrontation escalated rapidly from there.

Marsh and Cope began hiring employees away from one another, bribing officials to advantage themselves and hurt the other, stealing fossils from one another's sites, and so on and so forth. They actively tried to destroy one another's reputations, and even turned to destroying fossils rather than letting the other get his hands on them. Financially and professionally, the rivalry eventually ruined both of them, and they never abandoned it.

The two scientists discovered 136 new species during the Bone Wars, including Triceratops and Stegosaurus. (Before then, we had only nine named species of dinosaur in North America.)

Unfortunately, the Bone Wars also did much to damage the reputation of American paleontology. It resulted in the loss of numerous fossils, the USGS losing its paleontology division, and a severe, decades-long blow to the reputation of American paleontology.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Location, Location, Location

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy tells us all about placement and location, location, location. And he uses a novel way of website strategy to reflect on the right yard ramps themselves.

Check out his new blog HERE.

What Happened to Everyone?

Why Cahokia Went Down

The Fall of the Americas

Civilization & Its Discontent

One thing that happens to me—often—as I get older:

Learning that something I was taught in school was completely wrong. As you get older, it’ll also probably happen to you more and more, as well. We have more scientists and other researchers than ever before (in fact, 90% of all the scientists who have ever lived are alive today). So, human knowledge is advancing faster than ever.

Plate tectonics was only discovered in the 60s. There are tons of people alive today who were taught nothing about it; they often learned those older, incorrect models of geology.

The most recent thing I learned that I'd been taught wrongly? America before Columbus.

When I was a kid, we were taught that America was a wild, largely empty place, with just a few Native Americans wandering around—like a small group of people alone in a stadium. As it turns out, though, that stadium was pretty packed.

Charles C. Mann's excellent book 1491 is an exploration of recent historical and archaeological study into the pre-Columbian Americas. It turns out that massive, densely populated civilizations abounded in the Americas. The city of Cahokia was the size of London around the time Columbus showed up, and it was located near modern-day St. Louis.

The Aztec and Incan Empires both had populations comparable to many European nations at the time. Countless souls lived in massive cities in the Amazon rainforest. These last are the most mysterious of the lot, since it's such poor territory to preserve archaeological remnants. As we find more and more information on them, it becomes more and more apparent how impressive they must have been.

So, what happened to everyone? Well, in a single word: disease. Apocalyptic outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, malaria, and more, all brought by Europeans, raced across the Americas, wiping out an absolutely terrifying 90% of the population of the Americas. The Native American populations Europeans encountered? In a very real sense, they were survivors of an apocalypse.

1491 is far from the most cheerful book I've ever read, but it's an incredibly informative one. It should be required reading for anyone interested in American history.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Smart Equipment Financing

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy sees mostly positive growth in his industry sectors. Companies are investing fairly strongly in equipment, with or without the prospect of another recession.

Check out his insightful post HERE.

Underground Sleeping Situation

Bunking in Bunkers

Going Underground

Gentrification . . . of a Sort

In the 1960s and 70s, Maoist China constructed a massive series of fallout shelters underneath their cities for fear of nuclear war. Beijing had 10,000 such bunkers, with many more constructed across the nation. Now, however, that the Cold War has ended and fear of nuclear war has receded, those bunkers are seeing new life.

Every night, more than a million inhabitants of Beijing bed down inside these underground bunkers. They're largely migrant workers and poor rural students, and the conditions they live in are often quite harsh. The bunkers have been subdivided into countless micro-apartments, and people are crammed into these spaces like stacked logs.

While laws dictate a minimum size for the micro-apartments, they're often ignored. It's not uncommon to find an entire family living in a room only large enough for a bed. Mold is common, and the lack of sunlight and ventilation certainly isn't healthy.

Despite government efforts to clean up the bunkers, there isn't anywhere else for these people to go. Housing and rental prices in Beijing have skyrocketed to utterly unsupportable levels.

This isn't even remotely an uncommon phenomenon, either: across the globe, cities have rampant housing crises as the global population increasingly urbanizes. It's happening here in America, as well. New York, for instance, is famous for having the highest density of poor artists per apartment of any major developed city. (If there's not at least two musicians and a cartoonist in your closet, you're not using your space correctly.)

Unfortunately, we don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. In New York much of the problem comes from issues like the ultra-wealthy buying multiple luxury residences and leaving them unoccupied. The problem is completely different in China, where rural populations are abandoning their traditional ways of life en masse.

Cities and governments across the world are facing this problem, and how they respond is absolutely critical.

Me? I fantasize about finding a cabin out in the country with no neighbors for miles. People are too much trouble most of the time.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: GeoBusiness Plate Tectonics

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy explores geopolitics plate tectonics and its effect on steel. He calls it GeoBusiness plate tectonics, and I'm always up for a new meme.

Check out his terrific post HERE.

Finishing Corinth Canal

Or: Taking Their Time to (Not) Get it Right

That's Some Celebration

The longest construction project in history lasted almost two thousand years.

The Corinth Canal is a four-mile-long, seventy-foot-wide canal that separates the Peloponnese peninsula from mainland Greece, technically making it an island.

The Corinthian Tyrant Periander first proposed the canal in the seventh century BCE. It swiftly became too expensive, and Periander instead constructed a Diolkos, a stone road designed to use to drag (or portage) ships across the narrow isthmus. (You can still see remnants of the Diolkos alongside the canal.)

The canal idea was next resurrected in the third century BCE by Diadoch Demetrius Poliorcetes, one of the generals who warred over the remnants of Alexander the Great's empire after his death. His surveyors, however, miscalculated and feared that the canal would result in large-scale flooding, so the project was abandoned.

Roman Emperors Julius Caesar and Caligula both considered constructing the canal, but both were assassinated before they could begin. Emperor Nero became the first ruler to actually move forward with the construction of the canal—and, in fact, was the first person to labor on it, digging up the first basket of soil with a pickaxe. Construction officially began in 67 AD, after centuries of false starts.

Almost immediately afterward, of course, Nero got assassinated.

For nearly two thousand years after that, the idea never progressed farther than another proposal. Several conquerors of Greece throughout its history considered the idea, but nothing happened.

Then, in the 1830s, Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire. New proposals immediately started back up, and construction finally started in the 1880s. (That’s a pretty short amount of time, as far as the Corinth Canal goes.)

Finally, on July 25, 1893, Greece completed the Corinth Canal. And, of course, it was too narrow, too windy, and had currents that were too severe for it to be of much use, except to a small number of ships a year.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Honoring Industry Partners

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy has a fascinating entry about his vendors who go above and beyond. Much admiration for how his approach to business is reciprocated across the nation.

Read his blog HERE.

Cold Welding

Or: One Advantage of Being Messy

cold welding

Shut the door, please.

On June 3, 1965, a door failed to close.

In most situations, this would be a minor annoyance, but this was in the middle of the Gemini 4 space mission, and the door in question was the outer airlock door of the capsule—while they were in space.

So, yes: this was rather a big problem. In the end, the problem turned out merely to be a jammed spring; they managed to get the door shut. There were serious concerns, however, that a more severe problem might have occurred: cold welding.

Cold welding is exactly what it sounds like: Two pieces of metal welding together in cold conditions, rather than through application of heat. Specifically, it involves two clean, flat pieces of metal bonding together when they contact in a vacuum.

These need to be two exceptionally clean pieces of metal, since any contaminants can interfere with the process. Once they're welded, however, as far as the two pieces of metal are concerned, they're just one piece, not two. The process actually bonds the two together as if they'd always been one piece.

Needless to say, this is a big concern in space, where you really can't afford to have random mechanical failures due to pieces deciding they don't want to move.

Quite a few satellites have been lost through cold welding over the years, and the Galileo probe sent to Jupiter had its high-power antenna welded shut in this way.

There are a few good methods to help prevent cold welding these days—using plastic, ceramics, and coatings whenever possible, as well as making sure that any metals in or near contact with one another are different metals, to reduce risks of cold welding.

Finally, we have one more thing protecting us: our natural messiness. Skin oil, dust, and other contaminants can help prevent cold welding. And, guess what? We're really good at getting all that stuff on everything, even our super-expensive, high-tech space probes. Three cheers for being messy.