Portal:Cenozoic/Science, culture, and economics articles

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Selected articles covering the Cenozoic and human science, culture, and economics

A Marella fossil.
Paleontology or palaeontology (/ˌplɪɒnˈtɒləi/, /ˌplɪənˈtɒləi/ or /ˌpælɪɒnˈtɒləi/, /ˌpælɪənˈtɒləi/) is the scientific study of prehistoric life. It includes the study of fossils to determine organisms' evolution and interactions with each other and their environments (their paleoecology). As a "historical science" it attempts to explain causes rather than conduct experiments to observe effects. Paleontological observations have been documented as far back as the 5th century BC. The science became established in the 18th century as a result of Georges Cuvier's work on comparative anatomy, and developed rapidly in the 19th century. The term itself originates from Greek: παλαιός (palaios) meaning "old, ancient," ὄν, ὀντ- (on, ont-), meaning "being, creature" and λόγος (logos), meaning "speech, thought, study". Paleontology lies on the border between biology and geology. It now uses techniques drawn from a wide range of sciences, including biochemistry, mathematics and engineering. Use of all these techniques has enabled paleontologists to discover much of the evolutionary history of life, almost all the way back to when Earth became capable of supporting life, about 3,800 million years ago. As knowledge has increased, paleontology has developed specialized sub-divisions, some of which focus on different types of fossil organisms while others study ecology and environmental history, such as ancient climates. Body fossils and trace fossils are the principal types of evidence about ancient life, and geochemical evidence has helped to decipher the evolution of life before there were organisms large enough to leave fossils. (see more...)

Illustration of trilobite fossils by Joachim Barrande.
The history of paleontology traces the history of the effort to study the fossil record left behind by ancient life forms. Although fossils had been studied by scholars since ancient times, the nature of fossils and their relationship to life in the past became better understood during the 17th and 18th centuries. At the end of the 18th century the work of Georges Cuvier ended a long running debate about the reality of extinction and led to the emergence of paleontology as a scientific discipline.

The first half of the 19th century saw paleontological activity become increasingly well organized. This contributed to a rapid increase in knowledge about the history of life on Earth, and progress towards definition of the geologic time scale. As knowledge of life's history continued to improve, it became increasingly obvious that there had been some kind of successive order to the development of life. After Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, much of the focus of paleontology shifted to understanding evolutionary paths.

The last half of the 19th century saw a tremendous expansion in paleontological activity, especially in North America. The trend continued in the 20th century with additional regions of the Earth being opened to systematic fossil collection, as demonstrated by a series of important discoveries in China near the end of the 20th century. There was also a renewed interest in the Cambrian explosion that saw the development of the body plans of most animal phyla. (see more...)

Photograph of Charles Darwin.
Charles Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882) was an English naturalist and geologist, best known for his contributions to evolutionary theory. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors, and in a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace introduced his scientific theorythat this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding.

His five-year voyage onHMS Beagle established him as an eminent geologist whose observations and theories supported Charles Lyell'suniformitarian ideas. Darwin later published his theory of evolution with compelling evidence in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, overcoming scientific rejection of earlier concepts of transmutation of species. By the 1870s the scientific community and much of the general public had accepted evolution as a fact. However, many favoured competing explanations and it was not until the emergence of the modern evolutionary synthesis from the 1930s to the 1950s that a broad consensus developed in which natural selection was the basic mechanism of evolution. In modified form, Darwin's scientific discovery is the unifying theory of the life sciences, explaining the diversity of life.

In recognition of Darwin's pre-eminence as a scientist, he was honoured with a major ceremonial funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey, close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton. Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history. (see more...)

Photograph of Edward Drinker Cope
Edward Drinker Cope (July 28, 1840 – April 12, 1897) was an American paleontologist and comparative anatomist, as well as a noted herpetologist and ichthyologist. Cope distinguished himself as a child prodigy, publishing his first scientific paper at the age of nineteen. Cope later married and moved from Philadelphia to Haddonfield, New Jersey, although Cope would maintain a residence and museum in Philadelphia in his later years.

Cope had little formal scientific training, and he eschewed a teaching position for field work. He made regular trips to the American West prospecting in the 1870s and 1880s, often as a member of United States Geological Survey teams. A personal feud between Cope and paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh led to a period of intense fossil-finding competition now known as the Bone Wars. Cope's financial fortunes soured after failed mining ventures in the 1880s. He experienced a resurgence in his career toward the end of his life before dying in 1897.

Cope's scientific pursuits nearly bankrupted him, but his contributions helped to define the field of American paleontology. He was a prodigious writer, with 1,400 papers published over his lifetime, although his rivals would debate the accuracy of his rapidly published works. He discovered, described, and named more than 1,000 vertebrate species including hundreds of fishes and dozens of dinosaurs. His proposals on the origin of mammalian molars and for the gradual enlargement of mammalian species over geologic time ("Cope's Law") are notable among his theoretical contributions. (see more...)

Edward Drinker Cope (left) and Othniel Charles Marsh (right).

The Bone Wars is the name given to a period of intense fossil speculation and discovery during the Gilded Age of American history, marked by a heated rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. The two paleontologists used underhanded methods to out-compete the other in the field, resorting to bribery, theft, and destruction of bones. The scientists also attacked each other in scientific publications, attempting to ruin the other's credibility and cut off his funding.

Originally colleagues who were civil to each other, Cope and Marsh became bitter enemies after several personal slights between them. Their pursuit of bones led them west to rich bone beds in Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. From 1877 to 1892, both paleontologists used their wealth and influence to finance their own expeditions and to procure services and fossils from dinosaur hunters. By the end of the Bone Wars, both men exhausted their funds in fueling their intense rivalry.

Cope and Marsh were financially and socially ruined by their efforts to disgrace each other, but their contributions to science and the field of paleontology were massive; the scientists left behind tons of unopened boxes of fossils on their deaths. The feud between the two men led to over 142 new species of dinosaurs being discovered and described. Several historical books and fictional adaptations have also been published about this period of intense paleontological activity. (see more...)

Edward Drinker Cope (left) and Othniel Charles Marsh (right).
Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards: A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh, and the Gilded Age of Paleontology (2005) is a graphic novel written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by the company Big Time Attic. The book tells a slightly fictionalized account of the Bone Wars, a period of intense excavation, speculation, and rivalry which led to a greater understanding of dinosaurs in the western United States. This novel is the first semi-fictional work written by Ottaviani; previously, he had taken no creative license with the characters he depicted, portraying them strictly according to historical sources. Bone Sharps follows the two scientists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Marsh as they engage in an intense rivalry for prestige. Ottaviani has Cope and Marsh interact and meet many important figures of the Gilded Age, from P. T. Barnum to U.S. Grant, as the two scientists pursue their hotheaded and sometimes illegal acquisitions of fossils. Unlike in his previous books, "the scientists are the bad guys this time". Upon release, the novel received praise from critics for its exceptional historical content, although some reviewers wished more fiction had been woven into the story. (see more...)

The Tree of Life as depicted by Ernst Haeckel in The Evolution of Man (1879) illustrates the 19th-century view that evolution was a progressive process leading towards man.
Evolutionary thought, the conception that species change over time, has roots in antiquity. With the beginnings of biological taxonomy in the late 17th century, a new anti-Aristotelian approach to modern science challenged traditional essentialism. Naturalists began to focus on the variability of species; the emergence of paleontology with the concept of extinction further undermined the static view of nature. In the early 19th century, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed the first fully formed theory of evolution.

In 1858, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace published a new evolutionary theory that was explained in detail in Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859). Unlike Lamarck, Darwin proposedcommon descent and a branching tree of life. The theory was based on the idea of natural selection, and it synthesized a broad range of evidence from animal husbandry, biogeography, geology, morphology, and embryology.

The debate over Darwin's work led to the rapid acceptance of the general concept of evolution, but the specific mechanism he proposed, natural selection, was not widely accepted until it was revived by developments in biology that occurred during the 1920s through the 1940s. Before that time most biologists argued that other factors were responsible for evolution. The synthesis of natural selection with Mendelian genetics during the 1920s and 1930s founded the new discipline of population genetics. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, population genetics became integrated with other biological fields, resulting in a widely applicable theory of evolution that encompassed much of biology—the modern evolutionary synthesis. (see more...)

The title page of the 1859 edition of On the Origin of Species.
On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, is a work of scientific literature by Charles Darwin which is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology. Darwin's book introduced the scientific theory that populations evolve over the course of generations through a process of natural selection. It presented a body of evidence that the diversity of life arose by common descent through a branching pattern of evolution. Darwin included evidence that he had gathered on the Beagle expedition in the 1830s and his subsequent research findings. Ideas about the transmutation of species were controversial as they conflicted with beliefs that species were unchanging parts of a designed hierarchy and that humans were unique and unlike animals. The book was written for non-specialist readers and attracted widespread interest upon its publication. As Darwin was an eminent scientist, his findings were taken seriously and the evidence he presented generated scientific, philosophical, and religious discussion. Within two decades there was widespread scientific agreement that evolution, with a branching pattern of common descent, had occurred, but scientists were slow to give natural selection the significance that Darwin thought appropriate. During the "eclipse of Darwinism" from the 1880s to the 1930s, various other mechanisms of evolution were given more credit. With the development of the modern evolutionary synthesis in the 1930s and 1940s, Darwin's concept of evolutionary adaptation through natural selection became central to modern evolutionary theory, and it has now become the unifying concept of the life sciences. (see more...)

Geologic map of the US state of Georgia.
The geologic map of Georgia (a state within the United States) is a special-purpose map made to show geological features. Rock units or geologic strata are shown by colors or symbols to indicate where they are exposed at the surface. Structural features such as faults and shear zones are also shown. Since the first national geological map, in 1809, there have been numerous maps which included the geology of Georgia. The first Georgia specific geologic map was created in 1825. The most recent state-produced geologic map of Georgia, by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources is 1:500,000 scale, and was created in 1976 by the department's Georgia Geological Survey. It was generated from a base map produced by the United States Geological Survey. The state geologist and Director of the Geological Survey of Georgia was Sam M. Pickering, Jr. Since 1976, several geological maps of Georgia, featuring the state's five distinct geologic regions, have been produced by the federal government. (see more...)

Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In the later years of his life, Gould also taught biology and evolution at New York University.

Gould's most significant contribution to evolutionary biology was the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which he developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972. The theory proposes that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which is punctuated by rare instances of branching evolution. The theory was contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the popular idea that evolutionary change is marked by a pattern of smooth and continuous change in the fossil record.

Most of Gould's research was based on the land snail genera Poecilozonites and Cerion. He also contributed to evolutionary developmental biology, and has received wide praise for his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny. In evolutionary theory he opposed strict selectionism, sociobiology as applied to humans, and evolutionary psychology. Gould was known by the general public mainly from his 300 popular essays in the magazine Natural History, and his books written for a non-specialist audience.

In April 2000, the US Library of Congress named him a "Living Legend". (see more...)

Burning oil shale.
Oil shale, also known as kerogen shale, is an organic-rich fine-grained sedimentary rock containing kerogen (a solid mixture of organic chemical compounds) from which liquid hydrocarbons called shale oil can be produced. Shale oil is a substitute for conventional crude oil; however, extracting shale oil from oil shale is more costly than the production of conventional crude oil both financially and in terms of its environmental impact. Deposits of oil shale occur around the world. Estimates of global deposits range from 2.8 to 3.3 trillion barrels (450×10^9 to 520×10^9 m3) of recoverable oil.

Heating oil shale to a sufficiently high temperature causes the chemical process of pyrolysis to yield a vapor. Upon cooling the vapor, the liquid shale oil—an unconventional oil—is separated from combustible oil-shale gas (the term shale gas can also refer to gas occurring naturally in shales). Oil shale can also be burned directly in furnaces as a low-grade fuel for power generation and district heating or used as a raw material in chemical and construction-materials processing.

Oil-shale mining and processing raise a number of environmental concerns, such as land use, waste disposal, water use, waste-water management, greenhouse-gas emissions and air pollution. Estonia and China have well-established oil shale industries, and Brazil, Germany, and Russia also utilize oil shale. (see more...)

Oil shale.
Oil shale geology is a branch of geologic sciences which studies the formation and composition of oil shales–fine-grained sedimentary rocks containing significant amounts of kerogen, and belonging to the group of sapropel fuels. Oil shale formation takes place in a number of depositional settings and has considerable compositional variation. Oil shales can be classified by their composition (carbonate minerals such as calcite or detrital minerals such as quartz and clays) or by their depositional environment (large lakes, shallow marine, and lagoon/small lake settings). Much of the organic matter in oil shale is of algal origin, but may also include remains of vascular land plants. Three major type of organic matter (macerals) in oil shale are telalginite, lamalginite, and bituminite. Some oil-shale deposits also contain metals which include vanadium, zinc, copper, uranium. Most oil shale deposits were formed during Middle Cambrian, Early and Middle Ordovician, Late Devonian, Late Jurassic, and Paleogene times through burial by sedimentary loading on top of the algal swamp deposits, resulting in conversion of the organic matter to kerogen by diagenetic processes. The largest deposits are found in the remains of large lakes such as the deposits of the Green River Formation of Wyoming and Utah, USA. Oil-shale deposits formed in the shallow seas of continental shelves generally are much thinner than large lake basin deposits. (see more...)