I is for Iguanodon

Author’s Note: I just realized that I have an excellent book that covers the story of Gideon Mantell and the iguanodons. This book, Terrible Lizard by Deborah Cadbury, contains all sorts of juicy details about the scientific rivalries, the tooth, and the horn. Unfortunately, I haven’t read it entirely yet, so this post will be based on bits and pieces of what I have cobbled. They’re still tasty bits. Dinosaur Cobbler.

Model of the originally envisioned Iguanodon, in a Dinosaur Museum in Colorado. Photo by kajmeister.

Gideon Mantell was thrilled to find the palm-sized rock that seemed unnaturally pointed and curved. He knew it came from an animal–probably an ancient animal. It seemed logical that it might be similar to a horn, like the one on a rhinoceros.

Oh, what a howling error! Mantell would be known forevermore for his mistake. Was it his fault, given that the foremost naturalist of his day insisted the animal was a rhinoceros? He also was pooh-poohed by the other scientists, only to have them become famous for his initial ideas. Maybe history should be kinder to Gideon. Still, he also dissed his wife. It was Mary who found the fossils, let him fill their dining room with samples, organized his papers, drew illustrations for his book, raised his children … and then was forced to move out when the house was turned into a museum. On second thought, let’s not cut him any slack.

Who Found the Tooth?

Iguanodon was only the second dinosaur to be discovered and named formally by the scientific community that runs such things, which in the early 19th century was in England. The idea of dinosaurs, the extent of dinosaurs rule over the planet, and their huge variation in function and design was all yet to be discovered in 1820. When the quarry near Gideon’s medical practice started revealing unusual fossil bones, there was some ambiguity about what animal it might have come from.

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D is for Diplodocus

Diplodocus casts in the Carnegie Museum, photo from Carnegie museum.

Diplodocus was one of the oldest dinosaurs discovered. Language is so imprecise, though. Were they the bones of a 120-year-old? Was he from the Triassic, the earliest dino-era? Nope. He was among the first dinosaurs found by the dinosaur hunters during the late 19th century. So Dippy–that’s what that first skeleton came to be known as–Dippy was famous because he was one of the first, but he became more famous for a bigger reason. Dippy was copied.

Diplodocus was one of those “big” dinosaurs I mentioned back with the letter “B.” He is classified as one of the sauropods, those giant, the huge, long-necked, long-tailed dinos who were vegetarian and too humongous to be messed with. The family tree of the Diplodocus, (or the clade called Diplodocidae) groups the Apatosaurs with the Diplos. Both groups had long necks and tails, but the Apatosaurs were stockier, whereas the Diplos tended to be skinny in the front and all the way to the back, with an almost whip-like tail. (Like Anne Elk said, if you remember *ahem* Anne Elk, they were thin to start with, then much much thicker, then thin again. *ahem*.)

diplo (double) + docus (beam)

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Benjamin Banneker, First Black American Intellectual: Part 2, Benjamin’s Abolitionist Almanac

Herein shall we continue the story of Benjamin Banneker, surveyor, farmer, astronomer, polymath, and noted abolitionist. Be sure to read Part One, the history of Banneker’s family and his acquisition of mathematical knowledge.

Benjamin Banneker was nearly sixty when he hit upon the idea of publishing an almanac of natural information. As a farmer, he had kept copious notes, documenting the practices of bees and noting the 17-year cycle of cicadas. Unmarried, he worked his land mostly alone, though he still chatted with his neighbor, George Ellicott. One day, Ellicott brought over a telescope. It turned Banneker’s last two decades into a whirlwind of calculation, publication, and provocation. It would make him famous again for a brief time. He would also poke the hornet’s nest.

“Do you have an answer, Ben?” the schoolmaster’s voice barked out. Startled, Ben looked up and scanned the class, faces turned to stare and giggle. “What is 23 by 7?” Without any calculation, Ben replied, “14 in the tens place and 21 which is 161.” Still, he had not been paying attention. The master picked up the book that had absorbed his young pupil, Newton’s Principia. “I’m sorry, sir,” Ben said. “I forgot to ask if I could…” The master squinted but tried to suppress a grin. “Practicing your Latin?” “Yes, sir. Perhaps you could explain this part … ‘precession of the equinoxes…'”

Alone with a Telescope

In 1788, Benjamin at 57 had continued to eke out a small harvest of apples and wheat, even as the Ellicott Mills and other larger farms had grown around him. His minor celebrity status as a clock maker had died down a bit, although the clock still kept time and the occasional passerby poked his head in to gawk. The Revolution had come and gone. The War had come and gone, too.

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