Wednesday, May 6, 2015

On Failures of Imagination

Yesterday I talked about 'expected surprises' with regards to Yi qi. Yi qi is a surprise because its anatomy is so unlike other theropods, and it suggests that dinosaurs were experimenting with flight and/or gliding in some ways that were quite different from our current understanding of feather and bird wing evolution. But it was also not entirely unexpected, because scansoriopterygids had super weird anatomy to begin with that gave us enough information to speculate about possible gliding adaptations in those dinosaurs, even though the general consensus was that it was pretty far-fetched.

But today I wanted to talk about a related feeling, which I like to call the Failure of Imagination. Last summer I was working my way through a DVD set of classic sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure movies that I had picked up at some point. I wound up watching a lot of these with friends and basically Mystery Science Theatre 3000-ing the films, and in particular the old space adventure movies from the 40s-60s provided much entertainment. It's really fun to take a look back and see what sorts of things people envisioned the future holding for us – space travel, exoplanet exploration, robots. But what also struck me was the things that the filmmakers and storywriters couldn't even imagine. 

They could imagine spaceships and robots, but they couldn't imagine wireless technology. Or storing information in digital form rather than on spools of tape. 

They couldn't imagine non-button-and-dial-based instrumentation. 

And they definitely couldn't imagine women in roles other than administrative assistants (or as the bad guys). SO MANY SPACE SECRETARIES.

I kept thinking to myself – what sorts of failures of imagination are we having in palaeontology today? We can imagine so many things. But I wonder what kinds of things we won't even know we don't know. When we try our hand at speculative biology, what will scientists 80 or 100 years from now think was charming, or quaint, or ahead of its time. Failures of imagination are one of those things that make me nervous as a scientist, because I don't like the idea that I won't even know what I'm not imagining.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

On Surprises

I love surprises. Which is unfortunate for me, because I am extremely bad at being surprised. And it's hard to be surprised by things as you get older, and as easier access to more and more information becomes available to us every day.

But boy, when a surprise comes along that actually takes me by surprise, what a thing to be able to savour.

An extraordinary painting of Yi qi by Emily Willoughby, CC-BY.

So, enter Yi qi. In many ways, it's hardly a surprise at all – numerous artists produced wonderful speculative art about scansoriopterygids predicting membranous wings and/or gliding abilities, and there was even this neat hypothetical Archaeopteryx ancestor that I found in a paper a few years ago. At the time, I wrote on Facebook: "I had not realized that a bat-winged proto-bird was an idea that was on the table!"

(I also wrote, "I like his smirk, lack of neck, and skinny skinny tail", and I agree with Past Victoria about all of those things.)

While Yi qi might not really be a proto-bird, it's still an amazing discovery that shows there was a lot of experimenting with flying and gliding going on back in the Mesozoic, which is perhaps unsurprising, given that lots of disparate groups of animals use gliding to their advantage today – fish, frogs, rodents, marsupials, dermopterans, you name it. And yet, even though there's lots of precedent for gliding vertebrates, and others had predicted something kind of like Yi qi before, I was still genuinely shocked when I saw the paper and press images. What a great feeling.

What I love best about Yi qi, apart from it's extremely meme-able name, is that it's a great example of maybe what I'll call an 'expected surprise'. A surprise that, as soon as you see it, it seems so obvious and like it should have been there all along. It's like the opposite of a failure of imagination. Surely there is a long German word that captures this specific emotion? What other expected surprises are lurking out there in our futures? What things have we speculated on today, dismissed as being way too out there to take seriously, and yet will pop up as really-for-real things later on?

I guess I need to get to work on some ankylosaur speculative biology! Maybe we'll find the real Yee?