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Brontosaurus

Today I am thinking about the Brontosaurus. It was discovered during the “bone wars”: a palaeontological pissing contest in the late 1860s between Americans: Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. They were in a big rush to criticize each other in scientific mags and best each other in the race to discover the most species. Cope accused Marsh of moving bones in New Jersey and all sorts of drama.images-1

Anyway, in 1877, Marsh published incomplete findings of a dinosaur he named the Apatosaurus. In 1879 he published a sketch of this vertebrae. The Apatosaurus was about 50 ft long. That same year, Marsh published findings of something similar he called a Brontosaurus. This one was even BIGGER: 80 ft in length. Dude, he was so ahead of Cope! Marsh had a nearly complete skeleton of the Bronto (minus the head) that stood in Yale’s Peabody museum and he published a pretty picture of the dinosaur that captured the world’s imagination. This SO made up for the fact his parents named him Othniel.

However, in 1903, it was revealed Marsh made a 30 ton mistake. The Bronto wasn’t its own species. The Apatosaurus was just a baby version of the Bronto. But by this time, his boasting of big ol’ Bronto was in every child’s imagination, statues of the Bronto were put up in public parks and the Bronto even ended up on American stamps.

The head that was put on the Bronto during the exhibitions in the late 1800s was just a loaned coconut from another species. Marsh surmised the Bronto’s real head must have been small. So, it must have been stupid and weak. How could it possibly eat enough food to give itself strength? He theorized it must have floated around in swamps to help move its body weight.

Now palaeontologists know the skull was small with a long bill and the dinosaur digested its food in its gizzard, so it could gulp down a ton. It walked on land and swished its massive tail and could even stand up on its hind legs to mate: Thunder Lizard! Bronto just got a whole lot cooler. Now the names are synonymous but Apatosaurus, the first name, has been favoured for the past thirty years.

It seems amazing to me that something that significant I was taught throughout my childhood, something scientific and in my school books, is now “wrong”. And I haven’t even started talking about Pluto. Not only is it cold and small and the farthest flung from the herd, it is no longer our 9th “planet”. It’s a dwarf planet, because it doesn’t have enough umph to grab or fling away other objects in its orbit. And now it shares airtime with newbie, Eris.eris-250x187

In my imagination, Pluto is the icy grey home where all the dwarfed go to wander, forever exposed: the Brontosaurus, the infallibility of God, the perfection of parents, the justice of Karma, the purity of democracy, the happily ever after, the Canada Pension plan and all the prince Charmings.

Though disturbing, disillusionment is necessary.

One of my favourite playwrights, Aaron Bushkowsky, once said to me, “truth wobbles”. Pluto and Bronto are big wobbles and there’s something very exciting about that too. It reminds me that science is theory. It reminds me of the great Mystery and the awesomeness of the Unknown. It also reminds me that if some of my history and my ideology doesn’t sit right, I can investigate it and possibly change it. It might just not be ‘true”. There are many ugly theories I was taught that I grew out of, ugly theories my daughter doesn’t even wrestle with.

I now believe in seat belts and recycling. I now believe women are equal to men. I now believe homosexuality is healthy and normal. I now believe the First Nations got a raw deal. I now believe species are actually going extinct. I now believe in the kindness of strangers. I now believe one person can change the world. I now believe in a God beyond my understanding.hugging2

 

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