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Archive for March, 2009

Wired gets it (sort of) wrong:

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Wired magazine had a short piece today on Jefferson the Inventor, celebrating his talk at the American Philosophical Society in 1797 about the new species, Megalonyx, that Jefferson thought he had discovered. It’s a nice story, and an interesting side of Jefferson — there he was, in 1796 (when he’s ostensibly running for President) poring over some new fossil bones that had been sent to him and then writing a scientific paper describing the new specimen as a kind of giant carnivore, never-before-described in the New World fauna.

Unfortunately, Jefferson was completely mistaken about the fossils — it was not a new species of giant carnivore, but rather an individual from the species Megatherium, a giant sloth-like beast that had been described by the great French zoologist, George Cuvier, the year before. As I put it in chapter 4 of the book:

“The individual specimen Jefferson described in his paper was not, it turned out, from a new species of giant carnivore, but rather one of the extinct Giant Sloths from the genus “Megatherium,” a close relative of modern tree sloths, armadillos, and anteaters. Megatherium, unique to the New World and extinct for around 8000 years, had itself been a truly astonishing creature – up to 15 feet long and weighing as much as an African elephant – but it was, alas, no lion.

It was also not entirely “new.” Megatherium had been named and described just a year before Jefferson wrote his paper, in a 1796 article by the French paleontologist Georges Cuvier, based on specimens brought over to France from Patagonia. Jefferson saw a copy of Cuvier’s paper just a few weeks before he was to present his paper on the new discovery at the American Philosophical Society, at his inaugural lecture after having been named President of that institution – the most flattering incident of my life, he called it, and this after he had been elected Governor of Virginia and Vice-President of the United States. He realized his mistake (and corrected his paper) right away – which is, to my eyes, the most remarkable part of the whole remarkable story (recounted in delightful detail in both the Boyd and Semonin references listed at the end of the chapter), having myself, while a graduate student in physical anthropology, spent many hours staring at teeth and bones, and drawings of teeth and bones in published papers, and trying to compare the two, with precious little success.


Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Lovely!! Thanks to “New Chinese Characters for a New World” blog.

West Coast Jefferson’s Moose Sightings:

Friday, March 6th, 2009

Just wanted to drop a note and invite any West Coast readers who might happen to be in the neighborhood this coming Monday to a talk I’ll be giving about my book over at the Stanford Law School around lunchtime (12:50 - 2). It should be interesting - I think I’ve got a pretty good talk prepared, and my guess is there will be some folks there with some interesting thoughts on how this Jefferson’s moose idea does, or doesn’t, help us figure out what’s going on on the Net and/or what we might do about that.

And some of you may recall a few weeks ago I noted the strange coincidence that the folks digging the foundation for the new Thomas Jefferson Law School building in San Diego had unearthed an almost-complete skeleton of a woolly mammoth. It’s pretty funny; here I go and spend a dozen years or so writing a book that is all about Jefferson’s rather remarkable interest in (read: obsession with) questions of size, and scale, and the search for really, really big animals — and a couple of weeks after it is published they find a mammoth under the Jefferson Law School?!

Well, things get, as Lewis Carroll said, curiouser and curiouser: Underneath the mammoth, they’ve uncovered the skeleton of a 40-foot baleen whale! Seriously! [and now I'm reasonably certain that if they keep digging, they'll turn up an apatosaur or two under there]. Dean Rudy Hasl of the Law School was quoted as saying it was “amazing to find such enormous land and sea creatures within 10 feet of one another” — I’ll say!!