Sunday, January 25, 2015

Well, this sucks

I just read an article on Buzz Feed by a woman talking about dating for the first time after her marriage fell apart. It's not really about dating in general, it's about a dramatic turn of events specific to her story. What struck me at a personal level was the way she described the appalling prospects for a woman in her late fifties (i.e., women my age). She "watched half in fascination, half in horror as eHarmony’s computerized compatibility matrix churned out a slew of Santa Claus look-alikes." Ever since my beard rather abruptly turned snow-white a few years back, I've been a little put aback by the sudden display of grand-parent respect shown by young people and offers of senior discounts by public employees. Now, I find that, for some educated women my age, the very existence of single men who look like me is considered a "horror."
I can't tell you how eager I'll be to begin dating, if ever.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Boston Charlie

It wouldn't be Christmas without a rendition of the greatest carol of all time.

Deck us all with Boston Charlie
Lyrics by Walt Kelly, Music by Traditional (whoever he was)

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker n' too-da-loo!
Hunky Dory's pop is lolly gaggin' on the wagon,
Willy, folly go through!

Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloupe, 'lope with you!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarum bung-a-loo!

Duck us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an' Polly Voo!
Chilly Filly's name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly's jolly chilly view halloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, Woof, Woof!
Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, Goof, Goof!

Tickle salty boss anchovie
Wash a wash a wall Anna Kangaroo
Ducky allus bows to Polly,
Prolly Wally would but har'ly do!

Dock us all a bowsprit, Solly --
Golly, Solly's cold and so's ol' Lou!

A Holiday Warning

This is a rerun of a post I wrote around this time a few years ago. I think it's still relevant.


The men in black (MIB) entered UFO lore in 1956 in a book entitled They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. The author was one Gray Barker who had been a member of one of the first American UFO groups, the rather ambitiously named International Flying Saucer Bureau (IFSB). Though Barker's book dealt with a number of paranormal topics, the largest part of it dealt with his former boss, IFSB founder Albert Bender.

In 1953 the IFSB was about two years old with a few hundred dues paying members (called "investigators") who all received the Bureau's newsletter Space Review. The group was doing well enough when, in October 1953, Bender suddenly stopped publication of Space Review, and dissolved the IFSB. The last issue of the news letter gave only this explanation.
STATEMENT OF IMPORTANCE: The mystery of the flying saucers is no longer a mystery. The source is already known, but any information about this is being withheld by order from a higher source. We would like to print the full story in Space Review, but because of the nature of the information we are very sorry that we have been advised in the negative.
According to Barker, the reason Bender had so abruptly ended the group was that three mysterious men in black had visited Bender and warned him off. But before they did, the MIBs were good enough to explain at least part of the true secret of the flying saucers. UFOs, they said, actually come from Antarctica. They have bases in both polar regions and regularly fly between them. Bender told a different story in his own book in 1963.

Enough UFO stories end with the craft departing due north or south that Barker's version of Bender's visitors has been adopted by conspiracy theorists who believe in a decidedly terrestrial origin for saucers. My personal favorite version is that saucers and MIBs are Atlanteans from within the hollow earth, but the theory that they are Nazi refugees from super-scientific bases beneath the ice cap has its devotees, too.

The MIBs are the key to the mystery. The most mundane explanation that has been offered is that they work for the American government and that they are trying to hide the truth about the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs. But that could itself be disinformation. No government has the ability to do what the MIBs do. Think for a moment about the men in black. They have appeared all over the world. They have a special interest in unidentified flying objects and in protecting the polar regions. They seem to actually know what is in the minds of the people they visit. Who has the ability to manage an intelligence network like that? Ask yourself: Who has the ability to travel everywhere, at any time, and even seemingly to appear in two places at once? Who has a special interest in protecting the polar regions? Who knows when you are sleeping? Who knows when you are awake? Who knows if you've been good or bad?

I think you know the answer.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and be good for goodness sake.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Mammoth in a thong

In an effort to make science even sexier than it already is, Hope Jaren has introduced ‪#‎ThingIStudyInAThong‬ on Twitter. This is my contribution.

Mammoth in a thong. The real reason they went extinct?

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

I'm looking good, tonight

My big sisters got together and bought me a new hat for my birthday. It's a Stetson Temple Fedora, the equivalent style and color as my last one (the styles and pallet of Stetson have changed some over the years, so it isn't exactly the same). It arrived in the mail today. Looking snazzy and needing to take it out for a test ride, I walked up to the store and bought a some Q-tips, an job interview shirt, and a battery for my watch. I'm ready for anything. Except snake attacks (note to self: stock up on forked sticks).

And, I don't want to hear any cracks about Fedoras. This is my seventh one. I've been wearing Fedoras since before most hipsters were born or imagined.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Britannica breaks my heart

While hunting for some old images of moeritherium, I came across this:

Everything on it is wrong. Admittedly, the order Proboscidea has a big bushy family tree and many of the lineages and connections are the subjects of active controversies. But this goes beyond valid controversy; it's just wrong.

Starting at the bottom.

The genus Moeritherium is not the ancestor of any later proboscidean species. Though it had a nice long run of its own (almost twenty million years) and produced about a half dozen species, it was a side branch that ultimately left no descendants. When Charles W. Andrews unearthed the first Moeritherium at Fayum, Egypt in 1901, the oldest known proboscidean fossils were gomphotheres from the early Miocene. His discovery pushed the history of the order back to the earliest Oligocene--ten million years, but they didn't know that yet. It was an easy jump to make from earliest elephant to ancestor of elephants and Andrews announced his discovery that way. However, additional discoveries by him and by others soon raised questions about that conclusion and most Twentieth Century paleontologists were content to call it a cousin.

Trilophodon isn't a recognised genus or species at all. The word was coined in 1857 by Hugh Falconer to describe a sub-genus of mastodons that included the American mastodon and about half of the family that later came to be called gomphotheres. The other half, he called Tetralophodons (the terms describe an element of tooth architecture). The words are used today as adjectives, not as formal names, for different types of gomphotheres. The illustration is probably supposed to be Gomphotherium angustidens, the most common and best known Old World gomphothere.

Depending which species the Britannica artist had in mind, they might have managed to get the relationship somewhat right with Platybelodon. It is a trilopodont gomphothere. It produced the final species of the sub-family Amebelodontinae.

As far as mammoths being descended from platybelodons, no, just no. Mammoths are not descended from trilopodont gomphotheres or from tetralopodont gomphotheres or any kind of gomphothere. Their last common ancestor existed about 23 million years ago before the various prodoscidean genera left Africa.

Mammuthus primigenius, the woolly mammoth, is not the ancestor of modern elephants. In fact, it didn't evolve until long after the three surviving elephant species had reached their current forms. The idea that it is an ancestor originated in the earliest days of paleontology, before evolution or the ice ages were understood or accepted. Johann Blumenbach, who first recognized that mammoths were different enough from modern elephants to need a unique scientific, name thought of them as a less refined local breed of elephant and named them Elephas primigenius - the primal or original elephant. It didn't take long for naturalists figure out that the mammoth was different enough to need its own genus - Mammuthus. Outside of creationist literature, I'm not sure where you would find a source that claims mammoths are ancestral to elephants written since the 1880s at the latest. Plus woolly mammoths weren't that large. While they weighed as much African savanna elephants, they were much more compact, shorter and thicker.

African and Mammoth/Asian elephants diverged from each other about seven million years ago. Each of those lines produced several species before the modern ones appeared, coincidentally around the same time, 2.5 million years ago. Mammoths separated from Asian elephants while their common ancestor still lived in Africa.

To sum up: four relationships that are wrong, one species that never existed, one in the wrong chronological order, one visually incorrect (in size), and Asian elephants aren't blue. A correct illustration should look something like this:

When did Britannica become so sloppy?

UPDATE: An editor at Britannica just tweeted me to thank me for bringing the problem to their attention and to say they'll get right on fixing it. My faith is restored.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Not a good way to go

Here's a little story on CT scans of the two baby mammoths Khroma and Lyuba. The two are recent discoveries--found within the last decade--and among the most complete and best preserved ever seen. With such exceptional specimens, it's only natural that researchers would constantly be searching for ways to squeeze a few more facts out of them. Getting an opportunity to run one through an industrial-sized CT scanner is something both teams jumped at. The article mentions some interesting lines of research suggested by the results about how they grew and possible subspecies, but one thing stood out for me: these babies died horrible deaths.

CT scans of Lyuba and Khroma showing the sediment they in haled in their final moments. Source.

Most things that die go straight into the food chain. There are billions of bugs, germs, fungi, roots, wolves, sharks, and birds waiting for their share of anything that dies. If the biosphere has its way, no part will go unused. But, the biosphere does not always get its way and that's the only thing that makes paleontology possible. Some bodies or parts thereof escape the food chain and linger long enough for us look at them long after their parent species have been taken off the menu. There will always be gaps in the fossil record because the processes that lead to fossilization are the exception rather than the rule. Every fossil has a unique story to tell.

Over the last 320 years, fewer than eighty mammoths have been discovered with soft parts preserved (seventy-five by my count). Many of those were no more than a patch of skin with some hair and ligaments attached. Until recently, only about half of those reported were recovered. Only seventeen of the seventy-five were more than half complete when discovered. We know details of the last moments of the lives of only a small number of preserved mammoths. To my knowledge, all but one died a horrible, terrifying death.

The CT scans of Khroma and Lyuba show they drowned, buried in mud, and still gasping hard enough as they went under that they sucked sediment into their lungs. Little Dima, though the story of his death is still disputed, apparently stayed afloat for days in a bog before losing his strength and sinking into the mud. The Berezovka mammoth, an old male, tumbled down a riverbank, breaking his hip and thigh as he fell, and suffocated while struggling to stand up as wet soil slid down the bank and buried him alive.

The taxidermied skin of the Berezovka mammoth in the posture died in, attempting to rise as it was buried. Vladimir Gorodnjanski, 2007.

All of these horrible deaths were preserved because they happened in the Fall. Once the mammoths died, they were quickly frozen, probably that same night, and, for some reason, never thawed. In Lyuba's case, her preservation was aided by settling into an anoxic layer of sediment in the pond where she drowned. Other mammoth carcasses discovered at Yuribei and Fishhook also show a pattern of having died in the late Summer or Fall.

Dutch paleontologist Dick Mol with the head of the Yukagir mammoth. Source.

I'm only aware of one frozen mammoth that died in the Spring and, coincidentally, he's also the only one I'm aware of who died a peaceful death. The Yukagir mammoth was discovered in 2002 on the banks of an oxbow lake east of the Lena River delta. The front part of the body and most of the gut with its contents were recovered and sent to Yakutsk to be studied. The Yukagir mammoth was an old male who died in the early Spring after a tough Winter. He had several deformed vertebrae in his upper back from an infection indirectly caused by inflammatory bowel disease. It was the hungry season just before the plants would begin to bud and bloom. He had been eating a lot of willow twigs, which do not have a very high nutritional value, but they would have filled his stomach and the natural aspirin in them would have soothed his back. It was probably a warm day when he lay down on the shady side of a hill and died. Later, the sun melted some mud higher on the hill which covered the body and froze. Being on the shady side of the hill, it stayed frozen for the next twenty-two thousand years.

That most of the frozen mammoths died in the late Summer or Fall, is not an observation that can be extended as a rule to other fossils. This season was the time of year when large animals on the mammoth steppe had the best odds of being preserved, that is covered in mud and frozen. Other environments had their own best seasons for preservation. I suspect the best time to get preserved in the anoxic depths of a peat bog would be the wettest season. The best time to get deeply buried in sediments of a lake or shallow sea would be the flood season. The least likely time of year for preservation, in any environment, would be any time that left a body exposed on the surface where scavengers and the elements could have their way with your remains. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Periodic Table of the Elephants

Last January, Brian Switek, a rising star in the dinosaur firmament (his latest book), made an offhand comment about the need for a periodic table of the elephants. I don't know if he meant it seriously or if he was just going for the pun. However, I had just been reading about proboscidean evolution and the name set off a whole marquee of light bulbs over my head. Let's make a periodic table of proboscidean evolution.

I Googled the idea and found several "Periodic Tables of the Elephants" but all of them were normal periodic tables using cartoon elephants as illustrations. None of them were really about elephants. I let the idea bubble for a while, bounced it off my Facebook friends, and, last week, decided to go for it.

So, what is the plan? Simply put, it's an educational poster of proboscidean evolution using the familiar theme of the periodic table to illustrate the diversity of the proboscidean family tree. It's a very bushy tree. The definitive work in the late 1930s listed 350 species. It took sixty years for someone to become brave enough to prune that tree, getting rid of unnecessary duplications, and adding recent discoveries. By my count, there are currently 177 species recognized in the order Proboscidea. This can't all be explained in a poster. No one wants a poster of mostly words. The poster needs an accompanying booklet. This book and poster set is not unusual for educational posters.

Alrighty. What's the plan? For the periodic table itself, I intend to organize a representative subgroup of the recognized species (about a third of them) in the order that their genera first appeared in the fossil record and use these for the table. For each square in the table, I'll make a drawing of the species with a size bar, give it a two letter symbol, provide its Linnean binomial (scientific name), and the namer and year it was named (these are also part of the full scientific name). In the center of the poster I'll provide a key to the squares and on one side I'll provide a general family tree of to show how they fit together.

But wait, that's not all. The booklet expands on this. In the booklet I'll provide a specific description of each species, with an enlarged illustration, explaining it's evolutionary significance and stories about it's discovery, lifestyle, and appearance. The whole thing will be prefaced with an illustrated article on proboscidean evolution that gives perspective to each of the individual genera and species. Aside from its educational value, the booklet will allow the owner to assume an air of superiority while explaining the poster to their students/nerdy friends. Who doesn't like that?

I've decided to pitch this on Kickstarter (or Indiegogo, I'm open to recommendations). I'm broke and I need some income to keep going. I have tons of research that doesn't fit into the book, and I would like to monetize it. This also gives me something to put on my resume to convince potential publishers that I know my stuff. There are some great stories that I had to greatly abridge or cut from the book. These will make great e-books, but these are things that will be useful for marketing the mammoth book after it's done. I need something that I can do right away that will pay up front. The evolutionary data fits the ticket perfectly.

To do this, I'll need to produce around eighty professional quality illustrations. I can do that, but, since the last time I did any serious illustration, I've developed a serious hand tremor. Retraining myself will take some work, but not a lot. I would show you my current artistic ability, but my scanner died not long before I moved. Getting a new one will bee my first expense. I need to pay myself for my research time, my art, layout, color, and the production of the first batch of the posters, booklets, associated mailing costs, and anything I might have missed. Based on what I've already done, I think three months for the project is a realistic goal.

This leads me to some questions: 1) Is this a good idea? 2) Would you buy the poster or do you know anyone who would? 3) If I go ahead with this, what should be my financial goal? I think at least $4000 for the art and at least $2000 for the rest. Could I get more? 4) I need to offer threshold gifts. Any ideas? Signed prints? The poster? 5) What am I forgetting?

I'll keep working on the book during this time, just not as fast. If anyone has experience with Kickstarter projects, I'd love to hear about it. What do you think?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The turquoise teeth of Languedoc

Although paleontology, as a defined science, has only been around for two hundred years, digging up fossils and trying to make sense of them far predates recorded history. In the 1880s, French archaeologists discovered a much-handled, trilobite fossil that had been drilled as if to be worn as a pendant. The occupation level in the cave where it was found has been dated to be fifteen thousand years old. For the bones of large extinct mammals, a small number explanations and uses have existed during the era of written history. The bones have been seen as the remains of human giants, monsters, unknown animals, and as mineral productions that merely resemble real bones. They have been used to inspire the faithful, as medicine, and, in Europe, as a source of turquoise.

On November 25, 1715, thermometer pioneer and all around smart guy, René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur presented a paper at a public meeting of the French Academy regarding turquoise mines in Languedoc, the southwestern part of the kingdom. The mines, he said in passing, had been idle for twenty years due to wars and other disruptions. Before the paper was published, it was brought to the attention of Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, and newly installed regent for the five year old king, Louis XV. As regent, Philippe had the responsibility of finding resources to pay for those recent wars. Réaumur noted in the published version of his paper that, in the year since he had presented the paper, the Regent sent one of the members of his cabinet, Gilbert Charles le Gendre, to investigate. The governor of Languedoc was ordered to give his full cooperation and see if the mines could be brought back into production.

The aqua colored stone called turquoise was known and used in Europe in the same way as other precious stones. Most great collections included jewelry and religious items decorated with polished pieces of turquoise. Though the stone was well known, there was a great deal of confusion about its nature. The word "turquoise" was a fairly recent coinage meaning, essentially, "the Turkish stone." Turquoise originated somewhere in the East and was imported into the West by Turkish merchants. The problem with the name was that the Turks had not been between Europe and the Far East for that long. The Turks came from Central Asia. For centuries, Turkish tribes had been relocated by the Persian kings to their western frontier to serve various geopolitical purposes that are interesting, but not relevant here. By the early Second Millennium, they had become numerous enough and had Turkicised enough of the neighboring population that they began to form states independent of the Persian Empire. The identification of turquoise with the Turks probably dates to the Fourteenth Century when the Persians began to exploit new mines near Nishapur creating a dependable supply for export.

None of the writers of Réaumur’s time thought that turquoise was a new substance. The natural historians of Antiquity, such a Pliny and Theophrastus, described several blue and blue-green stones whose modern identity was uncertain. For the later naturalists, the relevant question was which, if any, of those stones referred to turquoise? Réaumur identified two possible contenders in Pliny’s Natural History: one called borea and the other calais. The belief of his peers was that, during the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the arrival of Nishapur turquoise, whatever word the ancients had used for the stone had fallen into disuse and been forgotten. When Turkish merchants began offering it as a new commodity, European merchants, lacking another name, called it the Turkish stone. The etymology suffered some problems, such as: why didn't anyone ask the Turks what it was called. Additionally confusing was the fact that the earliest known use of the word "turquoise" slightly preceded the arrival of the Nishapur stones in Europe and had been used to describe a different stone—a yellow-white one—being imported from the East by Turkish merchants.

The uncertain historical identity was followed by a second problem, which was particularly important to Réaumur. He wanted to know whether Persian turquoise and Languedoc turquoise were the same substance. This turned out to be a very complicated problem. The ancient writers being of no help, he combed through more recent writers to find an answer, but found them just as confused as he was. The writers he cites in his paper describe two types of turquoise: Oriental, meaning Persian, which was regarded as being the best quality, and Occidental, found in parts of Europe, and which was regarded as being of lower quality. The French traveler and gem merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who is best known today for having brought the great blue gem we call the Hope Diamond to Europe, spent considerable time in Persia and knew something of the mines around Nishapur, though he did not personally visit them. He wrote that there were two different mining districts and that each produced a different type of stone. The harder, bluer stone was called "old rock" and the softer, paler stone was called "new rock." Finally, there were reports of blue stones occasionally turning up in the New World. Oriental hard rock, Oriental soft rock, European, and American stones were at one time or another all called turquoise, but were they all the same stone?

The lecture Réaumur presented to the Academy was significantly different from the paper published in their journal almost two years later. The published paper contained additional information Though a copy of the lecture has not survived, Réaumur was fairly clear about which details were c he learned after the lecture thanks to Gendre's investigations as an agent of Philippe II. Réaumur says that he never was able to visit the mines in person; his original presentation must have been entirely based on written sources. None of these sources had a lot to say about Languedoc turquoise, but they all mentioned one curious detail that did not appear in other descriptions of the stone. Languedoc turquoise did not come out of the ground showing the bright blue color that made the stone so desirable. To achieve that color, it had to be treated with fire. Gendre provided Réaumur with samples from the mines to experiment on. The samples surprised him. Several of them looked like very large teeth.

Two of the teeth Réaumur examined. He handled at least six complete teeth and several fragments. Source.

Along with his purely scientific interest, Réaumur had a very practical reason for looking into the mines. For five years he had headed a committee charged with cataloging the useful arts and manufactures of the kingdom. Even after his work on the committee was completed, for the rest of his life he maintained an acute interest in the practical application of the sciences for the good of the realm publishing papers on beekeeping, silk production, and iron smelting. It’s likely that the first draft of his paper was an official report and that this was how the mines came to the attention of Philippe and Gendre.

A significant part of Réaumur’s paper was dedicated to the mines themselves and the method of converting the stones into turquoise. The earliest mention he could find for the mines was from 1628 and the locals said that they had been idle for about twenty years, though they were starting to come back into production. Most of the mines were near the town of Simore in the Gers district of Lower Languedoc. The turquoise was found in a layer of bluish sand several layers below the surface. The mines had to be heavily timbered because of the sandy soil. Some mines were as deep and fifty feet deep and he believed that there was plenty of turquoise still to be found. When discovered in the ground, the turquoise pieces were light yellow, tan, or light blue. To become turquoise, the pieces needed to be baked in special ovens that were a little larger than a coffin. Once the fire created a good bed of coals, the pieces were placed in a small cup, which he called a shoe (sabot), and placed on a ledge in the oven. The stones and the oven required constant attention. Wood had to be added to keep the temperature high and the unripe turquoise needed to be regularly monitored for color. The time needed to reach the best color ranged from less than four hours to over twenty four. If left in the oven for too long, the pieces would first turn green and then black, neither of which had any commercial value.

The ovens and tools for preparing the turquoise. Source.

In going over literature that specifically mentioned Languedoc turquoise, Réaumur saw that, of the five sources he discovered (I haven’t found any more), three mentioned the necessity of fire in bringing out the color and two mentioned fact that the turquoise ore looked like bones. His contemporary informants told him that the locals even referred to pieces as arms, legs, and teeth. He examined the pieces that had been sent to him with very carefully with a microscope and saw minute structures that convinced him that the ore really was the petrified remains of bones and teeth and not just rocks that looked like them. There was enough variation among the teeth that he suspected they were the remains of more than one species of animal. For a man of science, he showed very little curiosity about what those species might have been. In two sentences he says they are probably the remains of kind of sea animal since nothing similar lives on the land and leaves it at that.

There was a good hint to the identity of one of the animals in the earliest description of the Languedoc turquoise. In 1728, Guy de la Brosse wrote in his On the Nature, Virtue, and Utility of Plants: “There is a stone that has figure of a horn, the consistency of stone, and, exposed to graduated heat, gives true Turquoise: it is called unicorn mineral (Licorne minerale), because it looks like the horn of an animal. It is effective against all kinds of poisons.” The unicorn mineral, also known as unicornu fossile and ebur fossile, was the name given to fossil ivory, which almost always meant tusks of mammoths or of a few other species of prehistoric elephant. Since antiquity, unicorn horns had been believed to be an antidote for all poisons and even to have the power to detect poisons nearby. During the poison panic of the Renaissance, narwhal teeth were worth considerably more than their weight in gold. There was some question about whether fossil ivory came from unicorns or some other animal, but there was little doubt that it had the same anti-poison properties. In de la Brosse’s time the belief that the only security against the poisoners that lurked behind every tapestry was a large piece of unicorn horn had begun to fade. The price had been dropping since the last years of the previous century though the belief that powdered unicorn horn was good medicine hung on in some circles right up to Réaumur’s time. His lack of interest in the animal that produced the Simore teeth is curious because, when he made his investigations, it was generally accepted that most fossil ivory came from elephants and not sea creatures. Testing modern ivory to see if it too could be converted into turquoise would have been an obvious line of research for him to pursue.

Having blown off the question of whose teeth the Languedoc turquoise came from, Réaumur was left with one final question: was this the same substance as Persian ivory; were the Persians also baking bones and teeth to get turquoise? Réaumur took a selection of stones to a Paris jeweler who was familiar with Persian turquoise. The jeweler told him that some of the stones were old rock and some of them were new rock. If Tavernier was to be believed, this shouldn't have been possible. The two should not be found together in the same place. The jeweler held firm in his identification. Réaumur's microscopic examinations revealed that Persian turquoise did not show any of the organic structures that he saw in his samples from Simore. He was confident that his turquoise was a different substance than Persian turquoise. He expressed no opinion on the question of whether or not old rock and new rock Persian turquoise were the same substance.

Réaumur's paper was influential, but not the last word on the topic. In Bordeaux, local officials experimented with baking newer bones in the hope of producing their own turquoise. The experiment was a failure. For the next century, various writers argued about whether or not the Languedoc stones were “real” turquoise. Interest in the stones finally waned in the early Nineteenth Century when Gotthelf Fischer from Moscow University made a study of various turquioses and named the French turquoise odontolite. Now that it had a name, the stone went out of fashion. The main academic interest in it was nailing down exactly which chemicals, assumed to be metals, gave odontolite its color. It was a frustratingly elusive problem only solved in the Twenty-first Century.

Réaumur donated four of the teeth to the royal collections. They are the same ones he used as illustrations for his paper. He must have kept those. When Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton organized and cataloged the collections in the 1750s and ‘60s, he placed the teeth with hippopotamus bones. It was an inspired error. He also cataloged mastodon teeth from North America as belonging to hippos. He believed that both sets of teeth came from a giant, unknown species of hippo. The two were related to each other, but not to hippos. In 1796, Georges Cuvier, a rising young star in the French scientific scene, confidently announced to the world that mammoths and mastodons were not elephants, they were two extinct species only related to elephants. Extinction was a controversial idea at the time. Cuvier became an unofficial keeper of the list for extinct animals. In 1806, after examining Réaumur’s turquoise teeth in what was now the national museum, he added a new species to the list. He called it Mastodon angustidens. Over the years, the species has been bounced from genus to genus; today it’s called Gomphotherium angustidens. Three of the teeth in the museum came from this species and it is by far the most common proboscidean fossil in Languedoc.

Reconstruction of G. angustidens by Charles R. Knight. Notice the long jaw and four tusks. Source.

Though the Simore mines no longer produce turquoise, the digging hasn't stopped there. With the science of paleontology taking off, French scientists traveled to the region to hunt for ancient bones. During the Nineteenth Century, Edouard Lartet worked in the region and found bones from ninety-eight different genera of mammals, some extinct and some still living. Others followed. Lower Languedoc, it turns out, is a treasure chest of Miocene fossils. The Miocene ran from 23 to 5.3 million years ago. G. angustidens lived during the latter half of that. Many other species have been discovered in the region including other proboscideans. Fossil bones are plentiful enough there that, sooner or later, paleontologists would have begun to dig there even without Réaumur's guidance. As it was, it was sooner, and all because he became curious about reports of turquoise around the town of Simore and asked questions.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Happy Führertodestag

Today is the sixty-ninth Führertodestag, a holiday that not nearly enough of us celebrate. The word itself means "dead leader day." My anarchist and hyper-libertarian friends will be disappointed to find out that this is not a holiday marked by joyous assassinations. No, it is the commemoration of the death of one particular leader. I'm sure you have figured out who I mean. On this day in 1945, Adolf Hitler killed himself along with Eva Hitler, nee Braun, his wife of two days. Within days of their deaths, witnesses to the events surrounding their suicides and to the disposal of their remains had been interviewed and enough remains recovered to make positive identification of both of the Hitlers. Yet, for the rest of the century, rumors persisted that he had survived (no one really cared about Eva). Elaborate mythologies were created combining Hitler's last days, rumored Nazi super-weapons, Cold War rivalries, ancient mystical orders, UFOs, Atlantis, and even a physically impossible hollow earth. How did all this begin?

Hitler's ability to survive was legendary long before the end. He survived over twenty known assassination attempts before July 20, 1944. It became common knowledge that he employed look-alikes to camouflage his movements and confuse potential assassins. As a student I wrote a short paper on how the news of the July 1944 assassination attempt was diffused through the West. Within hours of the first reports, the idea that the plot had failed because the conspirators had tried to kill the wrong Hitler was being reported throughout the world. I traced the first mention of this idea to a newspaper in Zurich. I suspect that the writer jumped to that conclusion by looking at a list of the casualties released by the Germans and seized on the one name unknown to the writer. All of the others were easily identified military figures, the odd man out was "Dr. Berger". Who was he and why was he meeting with these important men? Obviously, he must have been Hitler's double. In fact, he was a stenographer. Hitler survived that attempt because the bomb was misplaced and because the blast shields over the windows were opened, allowing the pressure from the blast to disperse. Had it been a colder day, Hitler would have died along with Dr. Berger.

Following the July 1944 assassination attempt, Hitler stopped making public appearances. His whereabouts were never publicly mentioned. This led to a new set of rumors and a fascinating schizophrenia of rumors. With his retreat from the public eye, some observers began to speculate that he was dead and that the regime was only pretending he was alive because they needed his image. Once the regime announced he was dead, conspiracy minded observers claimed it was a ruse to cover his escape. The closest analogue I can think of is L. Ron Hubbard, the inventor of Scientology. For the last twenty years of his life, he moved in and out of seclusion, traveling around the world, leaving detractors to wonder if he was still alive. Once his death was announced, other, or even the same, detractors speculated that his death had been faked. I'm fairly certain both Hitler and Hubbard are dead.

Hitler did not die in July 1944. He survived and watched the capture, "trial," and execution of anyone even remotely associated with the plotters. He saw the failure of the counter-offensive on the Western Front which we call the Battle of the Bulge. He watched the Western Allies liberate France, the Low Countries, cross the Rhine and conqueror Western Germany. He watched the despised Slavic/Communist hordes conquer the Balkans, Poland, and march into the center of Berlin. He might have escaped the city, but he chose to stay and sent emissaries to rally imagined reserves beyond the capitol to come to his aid for a last stand.

By the last week of April 1945, Hitler, Eva, their dogs, the Göbbels family, some military commanders, and support personnel were held up in the Führerbunker, a heavily fortified complex beneath the courtyard of the central government complex, the Chancellery. This was more than a mere bomb shelter. It was a command center with private suites for the leaders of the Reich, their families, and top military personnel. The grounds above were pleasant gardens with off-season greenhouses. But, in April 1945, the gardens weren't that pleasant. Combat between the final German reserves and the Soviet juggernaut had reduced most of the city to ruins. The front line was blocks from the Führerbunker.

When Adolf and Eva married, they knew the end had come and it was a curiously sentimental act in their already-planned joint suicide. A few hours after their marriage, they tested their planned method of cyanide and gunshot on Hitler's dog Blondi. At about three-thirty in the afternoon of Monday, April 30, 1945, Mr. and Mrs. Hitler retired to their private suite and killed themselves. A half hour later the other inhabitants of the bunker, entered the suite to see if Hitler was really dead. While his doctor checked the two bodies, Hitler's valet tidied up a spill made when Eva knocked over a vase full of cut flowers in her death throes. They wrapped the bodies in blankets and carried them up to the Chancellery courtyard for disposal. On the way out, they were met by Hitler's chauffeur, Erich Kempka, returning from a scavenging expedition to find enough gasoline to cremate the bodies. He had been able to find 200 liters, which was more than enough for the task. The group placed the bodies in a prepared ditch, drenched them in the gas, and, after a few false starts, set them on fire.

This private cremation was in accordance with Hitler's last wishes. He had left explicit instructions that his body be completely destroyed and that the only witnesses be his innermost, trusted circle of associates. They failed him on both accounts. The private ceremony, conducted under artillery fire from the Russian army only a few blocks away, was witnessed by at least two German soldiers patrolling the Chancellery buildings. Though the fire burned for nearly eight hours, with no one to tend it, it failed to completely destroy the bodies. We can only speculate about Hitler's motives in ordering his body to be disposed of in such a manner. While he may have been concerned about denying his enemies--especially Stalin--a ghoulish trophy, his main objective was probably pure mischief. He wanted to leave his enemies in confusion, fearing his return and suspecting each other of knowing more than they were telling. In this, he was a tremendous success.

Five days before Hitler's suicide, Pravda wrote that he was not in Berlin, but that he had escaped to Bavaria to make a last stand in the mountains and had left a double to die in his place. The writers and editors of this article left no documentation as to why they said this. Why not report such a rumor? If the Red Army cleared Berlin and didn't find Hitler, the responsibility for his escape would his cleverness and the Americans' gormlessness. If they did capture him, woot! But what if it wasn't so clear?

According to his political will, Hitler divided his powers between three of his associates: Admiral Karl Dönitz was to be President of the Reich and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Göbbels became Chancellor, and Martin Bormann became the head of the Nazi Party. The absence of better known names such as Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler, is explained by some last minute back-stabbing by Bormann. Joseph and Magda Göbbels were at the bunker and managed to protect Joseph's position.

Around midnight, as the cremation fires were dying, General Hans Krebs left the bunker and began crawling through the rubble of the city toward Soviet army headquarters. The trip of a few blocks took hours and it was almost sunrise when he arrived and escorted into the presence of General Vasily Chuikov. Krebs described the events of the previous day and said he was authorized by Chancellor Goebbels to negotiate a cease-fire. Chuikov had an aide get on the phone with the head of the Soviet army, Marshall Grigory Zhukov, and Zhukov had an aide get on the phone with Stalin. This means Stalin definitely knew of Hitler's death on the morning of May 1.

Stalin rejected Krebs' offer. Around noon, Chuikov notified him of this fact had the general escorted back to the bunker. Having done his duty, Krebs joined two other army officers to get roaring drunk, sing American sea shanties, and kill themselves. After dinner, Magda Göbbels, the wife of the new Chancellor, poisoned six of their children. Then she and her husband dressed as if stepping out for the evening, climbed the stairs to the courtyard, and killed themselves. At 9:40, Admiral Dönitz--now President Dönitz--addressed the German people from a Hamburg radio station. In introducing the new president, the announcer said, "It is reported from the Führer's headquarters that our Führer, Adolph Hitler, fighting to the last breath against Bolshevism, fell for Germany this afternoon in his operational command post at the Reich Chancellery." There were at least two lies in the announcement. Hitler died a day earlier than Dönitz said and he did not die in battle. The remaining inhabitants of the bunker, including Martin Bormann, divided into two groups and made a break for freedom near midnight. Most were killed or captured by the Russians in the attempt.

The last person in the bunker was Johannes Hentschel, a lowly mechanic who had dutifully kept the ventilation, electricity, and water running during the previous dramatic days. At one point, he had climbed up to the greenhouse and gathered up enough garden hoses to run a water line from the bunker's private well to an army field hospital that had been set up on the far side of the Chancellery building. By keeping the water running he may have saved the lives of over three hundred wounded soldiers. Now, on May 2, he stayed on to watch his machinery. At dawn, he returned to the ruins of the greenhouse and cut several bouquets of tulips and lilacs, which he placed around the bunker to freshen the stale air. He fixed a large breakfast and did the dishes. With his duties complete, he waited for the Russians to arrive.

A few minutes after nine, he heard foreign voices in the upper bunker and prepared to surrender. The first Russians into the bunker were a group of women medical officers on a looting expedition. They had no interest in prisoners and left Hentschel in the hallway while they went to dig through Eva Braun's closets. A few minutes later, two commissars with drawn pistols arrived. Hentschel prepared to surrender again, and could easily have been shot on the spot, except for the fact that the doctors chose that moment to rush up the stairs, giggling and waving Eva's frilly underwear over their heads. The commissars listened to Hentschel's story of the Fuehrer's end. Another, larger, group of officers had arrived while he was telling the story and discovered the liquor supply. One of them handed Hentschel a mug of champagne and toasted the end of the war. Other arriving groups insisted on Hentschel repeating his story and giving tours of the bunker, but they let him take a short nap before sending him off as a POW.

Hentschel was already gone when a team arrived in the afternoon to hunt for Hitler's body. This team recovered the Göbbels' bodies and left. A second team found a bloated body in a water tank that had correct mustache and immediately declared it to be Hitler. This body is rumored to have been Gustav Weler, one of his doubles (I can't find a decent source to confirm this). On May 3, a Soviet private found the charred bodies of a man, woman, and two dogs hastily buried in a shell crater in the garden. This fact was duly noted by the inspectors, but it was two more days, on the fifth, before they combined that fact with the stories of Hentschel and Krebs and thought to examine the bodies. The following week, the Soviet inspectors located a dental assistant who had worked on Hitler's teeth the previous winter. Showing her a cigar box full of jaw fragments, she correctly identified both Hitler and Braun.

By mid-May the Soviets had eyewitness accounts of Hitler's death, the physical remains of his body, and a positive identification of those remains. They should have been able to make a positive announcement that the monster was dead, thanks to the work of the Soviet army who backed him into a corner from which he could not escape. On May 2, even as the first investigators were searching through the Chancellery grounds, Tass declared that the announcement from Dönitz was a trick. That same day, Eisenhower told reporters that Himmler, while attempting to negotiate a truce through Swedish intermediaries a week earlier had claimed Hitler was terminally ill. On the third, the official Soviet announcement of the surrender of the last German troops in Berlin mentioned witnesses talking about his suicide. German radio in the enclave under Dönitz's control continued to claim Hitler had died a hero's death in battle. In the space of a week, alert news watchers were offered three different causes of death and two dates of death, as well as well-grounded speculation that Hitler might have escaped. They didn't do that. Soviet news agencies were would remain contradictory and unhelpful for weeks after the fall of Berlin. Western media had only rumor and speculation to give their readers. The Atlanta Constitution demonstrated the dilemma of the Western press by reporting Dönitz's announcement of Hitler's death under the headline "If Hitler is Dead, Good Riddance." When honest facts emerged, there was no way to tell them apart from fantasy and rumor. The facts vanished into the white noise.

The Soviets continued to be difficult. They refused to allow Westerners into Berlin even after the surrender of Dönitz's government and the last armies in the field on May 7-9. On May 10, they announced the existence of the burned bodies in the Chancellery courtyard, but only allowed it might be Hitler. The same report went on to say that his body might never be found. On June 6, a spokesman for the Soviet army in Berlin announced unequivocally that Hitler had committed suicide and that his body had been identified. Three days later, Marshall Zhukov, gave a press conference with Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Vishinski looking over his shoulder. "We did not identify the body of Hitler," he said. "I can say nothing definite about his fate. He could have flown away from Berlin at the very last moment."

Stalin, by now, had discovered that a live Hitler might be useful to him. The possibility of a return of Hitler justified a harsh occupation and division of Germany. The same possibility required keeping tight control on Eastern Europe; only the Soviet big brother could protect them from a resurgent Germany should Hitler return. The possibility that Hitler might be hiding in Spain was used as an excuse to demand the Western Allies treat the Franco regime roughly. At one point, he even insisted that Britain and the US invade Spain just to make sure Hitler wasn't there. The suggestion that the Soviet army had allowed Hitler to escape, allowed Stalin to treat the generals with contempt and hide them from the public eye.

By June, the veil of secrecy that the Soviets had kept on Berlin had created a darkness too complete to be pierced by facts. They had given permission for the wildest imaginations to run free. Every story about Hitler's doubles and every sighting of the Führer, no matter how remote, was given straight-faced coverage by supposedly serious news outlets. The possibility that the Führer had escaped led numerous die-hard Nazis to brag about their part in helping him escape. Lieut. Arthur Mackensen told how he had flown Hitler from the Tiergarten Park on May 5 to Denmark, where the local Nazis held a mass rally to say farewell before the Führer departed for parts unknown. Others flew him to Spain or Japan or saw him board a U-boat for South America.

The last suggestion generated a flurry of excitement as the last U-boats at sea began surrendering during the summer. When the submarine U-530 surrendered to the Argentine authorities in early July, a Buenos Aries paper reported that the captain had delivered Hitler and Braun to a secret base in Antarctica before returning to South America to surrender. The same story was reported and embellished by the Chicago Times the following day. In August, the story had a second round with the surrender of U-977 to the Argentine authorities. The Hitler escaped to Antarctica myth transformed escape stories from the realm of the possible into the realm of the fantastic and spawned a whole sub-genre of conspiracy literature.

When I was growing up, Hitler sightings were a staple of tabloid news and it wasn't entirely unreasonable to think he might have escaped. There really were prominent Nazis living in South America and being protected by the military governments there. Adolf Eichmann lived in Argentina until 1960 when he was captured by Israeli Mosad agents. Josef Mengele lived in Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil until 1979 when he accidentally drowned. During the war crimes trials after the war it was revealed that an underground organization of SS officers known as ODESSA was involved in smuggling war criminals out of Europe. The rumors that Hitler might have been one of the escapees persisted until the late eighties when he would have been almost a hundred years old. Just last month, the discovery of FBI files showing that J. Edgar Hoover ordered an investigation of one of the escape rumors in late 1945 made the rounds of the tabloids as proof that he survived the war.

For most of the world, Hitler didn't so die as vanish. A burned skeleton in the ruins of Chancellery was too anti-climactic. He had become such a personification of evil that people needed unquestionable proof that he was dead. They needed to see the monster with a stake through his heart before they could really believe he was gone. The Cold War world helped keep him alive. The Soviets didn't plan from the beginning to hide his death. Incompetence and confusion caused them to send out conflicting versions of his fate. At some point, Stalin discovered that keeping Hitler's fate ambiguous was useful. After Stalin's death, when the Soviets told the truth about what they knew, there was too much distrust of them in the West for people to unquestioningly accept their word. The best most people would say was that the Soviets were probably telling the truth. Only Hitler's hundredth birthday and the end of the Cold War finally allowed him to die.

Happy Führertodestag!

NOTE: Much of this post is a representation of a post I wrote on this day in 2006.