The biggest science story this week was really, really big. Brontosaurus, weighing in at about 16 metric tons, is a taxonomic contender once again, thanks to a 300 page long cladistic analysis in the online journal PeerJ. (Spoiler alert: Yes, the rest of this piece will include puns, jokes and allusions to classic films just as corny as these.)
Every major and minor news outlet in the world seems to have the story, and it’s no surprise. This is not just a major science story, but also a cultural event of monumental proportions. How do I know that? Simple: even The New Yorker weighed in with a commentary on the paper. That either means the news has very deep resonance for humanity (including New Yorkers), or that The New Yorker is slumming it these days, or a bit of both. You decide.
As pretty much every reporter pointed out, Brontosaurus is an “iconic” dinosaur that lost its wonderful name (“thunder lizard” in Greek) through no fault of its own. The blame can be put squarely on Othniel Marsh, the 19th century dino hunter who—in his greed to discover as many dinosaurs as possible—named one skeleton Apatosaurus in 1877 and then named another, very similar, skeleton Brontosaurus in 1879. Four years after Marsh’s death in 1899, paleontologists decided that they were the same beast and so Brontosaurus lost out thanks to the rules of scientific nomenclature. I don’t need to tell you more because, as a sophisticated, scientifically literate reader of LWON, you will have read at least one if not more of the numerous news stories that relate the tale of the “Bone Wars” in pretty much the same terms. So to refresh yourself on the details, simply click on any of the many, many—no, wait, read MY STORY!
Okay, now that you know this piece is going to be at least partly about me, let’s get shameless.
I was tipped off to this PeerJ paper at least a year ago, by an excellent source who knows the lead author, Emanuel Tschopp, a Swiss national who did his PhD at the New University of Lisbon. I think that I was the first reporter to know about it, although if that is not true I’m sure someone will set me straight. No brag, just fact, as the character played by Walter Brennan in the old TV series “The Guns of Will Sonnett” used to say (there, I have badly dated myself.)
So I told my editors at Science, and spent the year dreaming and scheming how I was going to break the story before anyone else, thus giving my journalistic reputation a dino-sized boost and my often bruised ego a day in the sun. I would ride forth, figuratively speaking, on the back of a proud Brontosaurus, and lead the pack through the 24 hour news cycle. I would teach ace dinosaur writer Brian Switek that it’s not necessary to know the name of every dino species that ever lived (and the name of every bone in every one of those dinos), as he apparently does, to be a dino beat reporter.
Could I have been more naïve? Because several days before the embargo lifted, PeerJ took the action that is the bane of reporters everywhere seeking scoops: It put out a press release. So my editors and I huddled, discussing how our story could stand out among all the others sure to come. One thing we could do was discuss the science behind the new taxonomic analysis in more detail than anyone was likely to do, and there I think we at least partly succeeded: I didn’t see many other stories that actually gave examples of how Brontosaurus differed from Apatosaurus in skeletal features (characters) like a rounded expansion on one end of the shoulder blade or a greater length-to-breadth ratio of its main ankle bone. And we could give it a headline that no one else was likely to think of. How many reporters happened to have a copy of the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s famous 1989 essay in Natural History, “Bully for Brontosaurus,” right there on their office bookshelf? I did! So I suggested that we give our story the clever, highly original title “Bully for Brontosaurus!” Adding the exclamation mark would make it both referential and original, like all good literature. (that title didn’t survive in the online version of the story, but it does grace the print version of Science.)
So far so good. But how about using some art with the story that no one else was likely to think of? Gould’s essay, in which he defended Brontosaurus and its hallowed name, was in reaction to the flak the poor US Postal Service got from paleontologists and educators when it put out four colorful dinosaur stamps, including one depicting Brontosaurus. Even the Smithsonian Institution blasted them for being taxonomically incorrect, an apparent case of internecine government warfare. So we used an image of the stamp, but then—oh, the worst–so did Nature, our worthy adversary and chief rival for the attention of the scientific community! Okay, okay, but no one is likely to lead with the story of the stamp flap, right? Wrong. The Atlantic did so as well, and then went on to provide some pretty interesting musings about what is a species and that kind of thing, which I have to give them credit for (even if one of my sources also raised that issue, yay!)
So my scoop was in tatters, my lead duplicated in a major national magazine, and my idea for art duplicated by the competition (which, to add insult to injury, had the story first because PeerJ put the paper online a few hours before the embargo, while all of us on the East Coast were sleeping, and if you think that Embargo Watch’s Ivan Oransky had something to say about that you would be dead right. The only real consolation is that FIVE of our former students in New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP)—where I teach every fall–wrote up the story too, in the Washington Post, Wired, and other high-profile publications, thus making me a very proud papa indeed.
You know, I didn’t really intend for this piece to be about me. It was supposed to be about Brontosaurus and why children and adults alike are so fascinated by huge extinct beasts like it and Tyrannosaurus rex, et al. It was supposed to get into why dinosaurs are as big a deal culturally as they are scientifically, and I was going to speculate that it might be because dinosaurs are the first really big surprise that children get in their lives about prehistory and how the world once was, about the seemingly impossible and inexplicable routes that evolution can take when it really gets going in runaway fashion, producing massive beasts whose very existence is hard to believe and yet all those massive fossils oozing out of the ground are proof positive that they really did walk the earth millions of years ago and that if we had been there we would have been as terrified as everyone in “Jurassic Park” and all those other films and thanks God we weren’t but isn’t it wonderful and life enhancing and also really really good for the public understanding of science that we have museums where children can go and stare and marvel and maybe dream about being scientists themselves one day.
Yes, I was going to talk about all that, but I got carried away with my own story about me and Brontosaurus. Maybe all I wanted was to be a child myself again, even if just for a day.
Michael Balter is a contributing correspondent at Science and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.
Brontosaurus artistic reconstruction: Davide Bonadonna; incorrect, wrong, not-right Brontosaurus stamp: via Shutterstock