Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Lost World

The London album again. The latter sections feature pictures of the models I describe in this post.

At 4:15 the next morning I was awake to see Tim and Michael safely hustled off to the airport. The second time I had seen this side of 5AM in 24 hours. Ugh. Hugs and well-wishes were exchanged. Privately I swore I would never wake up before 6AM for the rest of my tenure in Europe. Then I laid back down and forgot to set the alarm.

I naturally woke up four hours later. 8AM never felt so late. I had been hoping to meet a friend somewhere in the city, but after checking facebook, my e-mail, and phone, I decided I should go about my day without hoping for a reunion with someone I haven’t seen in 18 years (we were friends when my family lived in Japan). The problem was that I hadn’t really thought about my day. All of London was mine until 7PM when I would once again shoot under the English Channel and return to the Continent, but I didn't know where to head first.

I started flipping through a book Yoonhee had left for perusal called 1000 Things to Do in London. That seemed like a few more than I could wedge into 11 hours, but one image caught my eye. It looked something like this:

This is the Crystal Palace Iguanodon. In 1851 Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, an English sculptor, was commissioned to build the first life-sized reconstructions of dinosaurs and other ancient creatures from Earth’s history. He was advised in his designs by Sir Richard Owen, the first director of the Natural History Museum. Owen was a fiery personality who coined the word “Dinosauria” in 1842. He was also a prolific scientist, who specialized in describing new species living and extinct. He was also a famous opponent of Dawin’s ideas on Natural Selection as he saw this as too simplistic a mechanism to trigger the diversity of the natural world.

But his biography isn’t really important. His dinosaurs are. In 1851, the Victorian world was finally coming to grips with the idea that the world might be really old and much more mysterious than anyone suspected. These models would present fragmentary bone and rock as the living, breathing animals the fossils once supported.

The problem: most of the material was, let me reiterate this point, fragmentary. They wanted to build an Iguanodon, but had four fossils to go on: Two teeth, a long bone, and a cone-shaped horn. Well, the teeth looked iguana-like, so maybe the animal looked like a massive lizard? Owen then crossed the iguana idea with an elephant and voila. Giant dino statue. So what if that spike was supposed to be near the wrist instead of the nose. The things were gargantuan. Shock value can go a long way.

Owen and Waterhouse were so excited about their project that they hosted a New Years party in the nearly finished torso of one Iguanodon. Every paleontologist is familiar with this image, one we recreated back in November at an outdoor dinosaur park near Gosslar.

Seeing the brief description of the site in 1,000 drew me on. I was alone in London with no one to roll their eyes at me or wonder how many more cultural touchstones we could see in the 45 minutes it would take to get into the southern suburbs of the city. I was going to make a two dimensional childhood image pop into the third. The added bonus here was I would get to ride an English train.

I keep a running tab on the quality of each nation’s rail service. I can happily report that the British did not disappoint, though the Germans really do excel at quality rail transportation. I unhappy to report that the English have decided lockers are a national security threat. Instead of convenient lockers in every station for a couple of pounds, they have luggage check stations where you send your bag through an x-ray and can leave it with the attendent for 8 pounds a bag. That’s insane. I’ll schlep my backpack across town, thank you.

I stepped off the train at Crystal Palace Station onto a platform that looked like the set from Waiting for Godot. Things looked a little more cheery when I got to the park. A colorful mural pointed the way towards the three islands that are home to the recently renovated animals.

The display was lauded when it was first unveiled, but by the turn of the century the sculptures were ridiculed as laughably inaccurate representations of ancient beasts. Iguanodon was supposed to be on two feet, not four (they also though his tail should drag through the mud). Dicynodons looked nothing like turtles, and Megalosaurus had nothing to do with medieval dragons. Scorn for the hypotheses of their creators meant the park’s animals were not well maintained through the twentieth century. In 2002 the display was restored and everyone got a shiny new coat of paint.

As I got closer to the man-made lakes that house this primordial menagerie, I started to pass families out for a walk or moms out with their pram. The grass was luminously green, and the hedges well maintained. It was everything I imagine an English Garden should be. Plus there were “Dinosaurs!” as I heard a four-year-old squeal.

Yes, there were dinosaurs. The iconic quadropedal herbivores leered across the pond and I sat in rapture. In case you’ve forgotten (and I’ll forgive you this time) here’s what the skeleton of Iguanodon looked like:

And here’s a reconstruction of the animal.

So, Waterhouse and Owen were pretty far off their mark, but they never claimed to have created the perfect models. In fact, as more complete material was being discovered in the American West, Waterhouse was commissioned to create a Mesozoic tableaux in Central Park that would have state-of-the-art reconstructions. Unfortunately Boss Tweed cut his funding and New York was left without life-sized dinosaurs. Damn bosses.

What Owen and Waterhouse did achieve was a rabid public interest in ancient life. Big creatures like Giant Ground Sloths and Ichthyosaurus are ready mascots for science. You can’t help but look at a giant bone and wonder how the animals got so big, what it ate, or what the world was like when it was stomping around. These creatures seed a germ of curiosity that drives the best scientists to pursue their questions about the natural world. Owen made this park and his museum public spaces where people could encounter the latest discoveries and explore the evidence on their own, personal terms.

I walked past the grinning Megalosaurus, who was reconstructed with a single jaw fragment and a chunk of leg bone. They were a little off here, too.

Again, they never swore these were completely accurate. He sluggishly stalks a still poorly known armored dinosaur called Hylaeosaurus.

Next to the dinosaurs is an island surrounded by goose-necked and dolphin-beaked reptiles gliding through the water. You might recognize these guys from my posts on the famous fossils of Germany. If not, here are the fossils and the sculptures.

Not bad. Not bad at all. The amphibians and mammal-like reptiles around the corner would dramatically change appearance over the next century and a half. The mammals were much more accurate. They occupied their own island set across the pond from the reptiles. There are just more rocks on this Earth from the last 65 million years, so the skeletons tend to be more complete and Owen and company were able to connect ancient fossils to living relatives. The Giant Ground Sloth shows the sculptor spent some time with modern sloths

The giant deer Megaloceros was tough to screw up since it’s really a massive elk.

I walked two circuits around the park, reveling in the details the Victorian scientists were able to include in their models, musing on what these paleontological characters would think of the modern state of the science. Recently, paleontologists graduated form idyll speculation and description to active reconstructions of ancient ecosystems. We delve into the biology of the animals we study, no longer content to simply name them. Now we want to understand them and their family's evolutionary history. We long to understand how their presence affected the biosphere we call home.

Still glowing with the rush of historical and scientific convergence, I went back to the dreary platform and shot back into the city, unsure where I would wind up next. A hint: It might involve art.

Until then,


Photos of dinos.

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