Enter the Matrix

I've admittedly failed to live up to my end of this blogging bargain for the past couple of weeks. Please note that my last post was on January 19 and that I live in the United States. I trust you, dear reader, to draw your own conclusions.

And there's been plenty to write about, too! Heck, I'm taking a class that's basically about preventing error propagation, which is philosophical gold. The words "reproducibility" and "crisis" came up yesterday (and the latter wasn't even used in a political context!). Earlier this week I found myself frantically scribbling notes while the brilliant Xiaoming Wang discoursed about the taxonomy--my own bread and butter!--of prehistoric dogs. It's just that spending hours on hold with your government representatives' offices tends to kill a day's accumulated intellectual momentum.

Politics is clearly on my mind, so here's my favorite quote from Aristotle's Politics: '...he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god' (1253a28-29). Humans need other humans, and in my academic life this has never been clearer than in lab meetings. 

I kind of love lab meetings (judgmental fossil skulls notwithstanding), and so I've made it a point to become more active in the lab's ongoing research projects. In the course of doing so I've stumbled upon that rarest of conceptual jewels: a bonafide law in an historical science. Here, then, is the First Law of Paleontology:

There's always a big pile of rocks to sort through.

I learned of this law when I was introduced to matrix sorting, one of the many kinds of grunt work that needs doing before we can get to the actual science that we want to get done. To hear different members of the lab tell it, separating tiny fossils from pebbles is either the height of zen meditation or the lowest rung on the paleontological totem pole. Either way, it's got to get done, and so I started doing it.

Interesting point about the matrix that we're sorting in the Hopkins Lab: it comes somewhat pre-sorted by other social animals. It turns out that some ants protect their anthills from erosion by piling pebbles around the hills' entrances, and that some ants favor pebbles that are pretty much the same size as, say, fossil rodent teeth. I won't get into the whole "fossils are really rocks!" thing again; it will suffice to say that since the ants prefer fossil-rodent-tooth-sized pebbles, mutatis mutandis the ants prefer fossil rodent teeth. The big pile of rocks I'll be sorting through, taken from these ants' hills, is therefore more likely to have fossils in it than would be a more randomly collected pile of rocks.

I'm a social animal engaged in a social enterprise that's made easier by the activities of other social animals. That's kind of cool and strangely reassuring. It suggests a corollary to the First Law:

You're not alone sorting through the big pile of rocks.

(I need to put that on a motivational poster or something.) We get through the hard stuff by finding help and, more often than not, there's help to be found if one is willing to look for it.