Sunday, February 16, 2014

Side Effects of a Misspent Youth

So, something on the lighter side, while I consider future directions for posts (see the last paragraph). Sometimes people relate one of their skills to a childhood interest, like someone who collected baseball cards developing an aptitude for math or statistics. These relationships are not always obvious, but I'm sure you can think back and say "I learned about [X] because I liked playing/reading/building/... [Y]." For me, I spent a lot of time reading dinosaur books, but I also managed to pick up a few other things, too. Here are some of them, in alphabetical order:

Anatomy: My favorite book from the ages of 5 to 10 was The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs by David Norman. Each section on a given group of dinosaurs included illustrations of bones, and you can't help learning the major bones of the skeleton if you're looking at diagrams of them all the time. (Of course, now I think that mammal skeletons and human skeletons in particular are kind of funny-looking, but you can't have everything.)

Classical languages: Your typical kid's dictionary-style dinosaur book of the 1980s and 1990s would include where a given dinosaur was found, when it lived, a translation of the name, and a size estimate. Although the translations varied in accuracy (whoda thunk that Monoclonius's name doesn't refer to a single horn?), if you read enough of them, you'd start to pick up on common elements. "A-" and "An-" making something negative, "Eu-" meaning "well" or "good", "Di-" for two, "Tri-" for three, "rex" for tyrant, anything "-odon" for tooth... you get the idea. Combined with some basic anatomy, you can actually grasp a fair amount of medical terminology this way, which is pretty handy. (Nowadays, you can pick up bits of other languages as well, as dinosaur paleontology has spread to become a worldwide field. Greek and Latin are still the big two, but an increasing number of names are using words from languages local to the place a dinosaur was found.)

Drawing: I can't describe how much of my single-digit years were spent first tracing dinosaurs and then drawing my own. This has given me the ability to... draw dinosaurs reasonably competently. Yes, there's that, but if you practice drawing one thing, you develop your ability to draw other things.

Geology: Sedimentary rocks are the obvious tie-in here, but the concept of plate tectonics had come into widespread acceptance not too long before I came in, and the books would often mention how plates had been connected, and how they had rifted apart. Of course, I also learned about the geologic time scale as well. (Incidentally, plate tectonics helped spur a brief fad of transcontinental dinosaurs that petered out in the 1980s. Anchisaurus picked up an African species, Dryosaurus picked up an African species, Hypsilophodon picked up an American species, Camptosaurus picked up a European species, and the less said about Iguanodon the better. Most of these reassignments have been reversed since then.)

Geography: "So there's this famous dinosaur site in a place called Tanzania/Belgium/Mongolia. Where's that?" Speaking as a two-time State Geography Bee participant from back in the day, if you want to make sure your kid knows their way around a map, you could do worse than to get him or her interested in dinosaurs. I think the only areas you'd miss are Central America, equatorial Africa, and areas of the Middle East and southeastern Europe.

Mythology and folklore: Related to the classical languages, many names have a mythological source. Titanosaurus? The Greek Titans. Rhoetosaurus? An individual titan (and believe you me, Rhoetus is probably glad for the publicity). Laelaps? An infallible hunting dog of Greek mythology. I'm cheating a bit, because it's a synonym of Dryptosaurus, but it always showed up in the thumbnail descriptions. Adasaurus? A demon in Mongolian mythology. Garudimimus? A mythological bird that figures in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and is a symbol of Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia (see "Geography"). As with languages, the current and coming generations get more to choose from as local traditions are used as sources for names.

Physiology: Certain ideas get associated with certain decades. A dinosaur fan growing up in the 1990s or the oughts would have read a lot about the bird-dinosaur connection, and in turn picked up a fair amount about evolutionary biology. In the 1970s and 1980s, the big public debate was all about whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded or cold-blooded. Those of use who grew up in the 1980s ended up reading at great length about physiology.

In other news, I'm considering beginning some regular topics, like quick descriptions of the geology of various National Park Service units, descriptions of notable formations (these could take multiple posts, say for example "Geology of the Navajo Sandstone" followed by "Fossils of the Navajo Sandstone"), and "Know Your [group of dinosaurs]", probably with an eye on less-famous types like "hypsilophodonts" and nodosaurids. These would be interspersed with the kind of posts I've been doing.

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