Thursday, December 13, 2012

Free Kindle download

FREE on Kindle, SAT. DEC 15 ONLY: Download my SF novel, A SINGULAR PROPHECY.

Young paleontologist, Ryan Thompson, makes the fossil find of a lifetime only to discover that he’s also made first contact with two 70 million-year-old alien intelligences. Thompson struggles with the aliens for control of his mind and body while trying to save the Earth and shape the future of an entire universe.

If you enjoy the read, tell your friends or even consider gifting them with a copy. Regular price on Kindle, $3.99. Paperback version, $13. Reviews also greatly appreciated! Here’s a link to the Amazon site:

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Ice Age Legacies

The 32,000 year-old stash of a Siberian arctic ground squirrel gave two Russian Scientists the opportunity to bring an ice age variety of Silene stenophylla, a narrow-leafed campion, back to life. The plant had shared the Siberian plains with mammoths, wooly rhinoceroses, and giant bison.  Silene serves as an example of the rich biological material encased in permafrost, an ice age legacy totaling almost one fifth of the land area on our planet.

The image I created for a November 2012 article in The North Forty News ( shows what the resurrected plant looks like. The mammoth in the background represents the paleoartist’s longing to actually see an entire ice age landscape recreated—to be able to see into the past and witness firsthand some portion of the twisted road that led to our here and now.

Dr. Johnson Goes to Washington

Dr. Kirk Johnson, paleobotanist and educator extraordinaire at the Denver Museum of Nature and Scientist, gave a farewell speech October 1, 2012. The Smithsonian Museum saw an energetic, creative scientist with a vision for popular education and snatched him from our midst.  Assuming he follows the course he set for himself in Denver 22 years ago, he will transform the Smithsonian into an even more effective interface between people and what they need to know about their incredibly old and complex world.

Johnson still has the playful instincts of a child. In fact, he considers the world his sandbox and relishes each treasure he finds there—like the trove of fossils excavated in Snowmass Colorado last year—fossils that graphically illustrate an ice age world most of us would find hard to imagine. He wants people to understand and marvel at ancient heritages that lie beneath our feet, telling tales of struggle and evolution that ultimately produced our own imperfect, but sometimes promising, species.

Johnson emphasized the special time and place we occupy with mind-blowing timelines and scenes of Earth’s dynamic beauty. As a species we are poised to transform the Earth—either to benefit or decimate the rest of the living planet. We can’t act responsibly unless we know what that world contains and how it got here.

Johnson discovers, explains, and inspires like few people can. Those are three skills Washington D.C. could certainly put to good use. He promises to come back and charges Coloradoans to take care of “his museum” in the meantime—an institution that inspires more volunteers than any other natural history museum in the world!

Artist Ray Troll captured Johnson’s intensity and obsession with fossil plants in this illustration for Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway (Fulcrum, 2007). Troll also captured me on a volunteer trip to Western Colorado that unearthed fossils for a museum in Vernal, Utah. I’m the Paleonerd on the right!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Surviving & sometimes thriving with fire

The west has been on fire this summer, changing lives and landscapes. Fire has been remaking the terrestrial world for at least 400 million years. In the Harvest 2012 issue of Colorado Gardener magazine I elaborate on this theme in “Surviving and sometimes thriving with fire.” Climate change will make our collective response to fire a moving target, as habitats regroup under changing temperature regimes. I’ll be interested in any feedback you have to the topic.

My illustration features Corydalis aurea, or “golden smoke,” a flowering plant that pioneered burned mountain territory after the Hayman Fire in 2002. 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Social Conquest of Earth

Disturb ants’ nests and soldiers boil out, mandibles gnashing, ready to fight. Workers move larval grubs to deeper sanctuaries. The queen abides in her chamber, poised to generate more eggs to replace fallen comrades. Disturb human communities, as the raging High Park fire is doing in northern Colorado, and fire fighters swarm to action. Relief workers provide food and shelter. The wealth of individuals and a nation buys resources to protect lives and limit damage. According to E. O. Wilson, Nobel Prize winning scientist and author, both ants and humans are demonstrating the amazing power and adaptive success of eusociality—the altruistic behavior of multi-generational social groups to defend home and hearth. Wilson outlines his latest ideas in The Social Conquest of Earth (W.W. Norton, 2012).

For some people, being compared to an insect the size of a rice grain may not be appealing. Others may only attend to ants when they invade a picnic basket or kitchen. Ants, though small, wield large ecological clout. Wilson estimates the combined worldwide weight of ants and humans to be roughly equal. Other insects belong to the eusocial club, including termites and some species of wasps and bees. Among vertebrates—animals with backbones—only naked mole rats, a few bird species, and perhaps African wild dogs flirt with effective, multi-generational eusocial behavior. Humans stand out because they have combined their primate social skills with enormously enhanced brainpower. They pass on their skills not only through the relatively slow mutation of genes, but also through the rapid dissemination of memes:  ideas transmitted through the cultural tools of art and language.

Genetic changes have molded social insects over hundreds of millions of years. In the process, ants, termites, and bees have flourished, but they have also solidly integrated themselves into the living world—the biosphere. Ants farm fungi and milk aphids for a sugar boost. They jealously protect food and shelter their preferred plants from other animals. Ants return the dead to the earth and succumb to predation themselves, entering food chains at several levels. Plants enlist ants, bees, and other insects to assist in their sex lives. The success of social insects is reflected in the success of the communities they inhabit. They demonstrate the fact that cooperation among different species is often as—or more important than—the competition between them.

We humans took a fast track to eusociality that, while highly successful in the short term, plagues us with conflicting loyalties. Wilson says, “The origin of modern humanity was a stroke of luck—good for our species for awhile, bad for the rest of life forever.” Selfishness, cowardice, and hypocrisy serve individual survival, but honor, virtue, and duty serve our group survival. He claims these contrary impulses will always be at war with each other. But he does hold out hope that we can overcome our flaws. He’s encouraged by the ways we are becoming more interconnected as one global, rather than many tribal, communities.

The High Park fire threatens the home of a teacher friend. Her recent e-mails to 67 friends and family members apprising them of her situation demonstrates this hopeful trend. Offers of help poured in—from neighbors, from acquaintances and colleagues, and from individuals who have put time and sweat into helping her and her family build this home. She also received a lot of prayers and words of hope—from Christians, Buddhists, spiritualists of other persuasions and even atheists. And now that the fire has consumed over 80,000 acres, help from State and national political organizations continues to arrive.

Humans excel at providing help to others during crises. In the deep past, it was the tribe that rallied its chiefs and priests and the gods they nurtured to bring aid and comfort. Later, cities and nation states did the same, protecting their own, while often coming into conflict with other political and religious groups. Today, we are slowly forging world-wide person-to-person connections that are breaking divisive barriers: barriers erected by differences in politics, religion, sexuality, and race that have served us reasonably well in the past as ways to preserve regional social groups—but have NOT served well at all to integrate our species effectively into the global web of life.

We get into trouble when politics leads to dogmatism and inaction.

We get into trouble when religion leads to tribalism and irrationality.

We get into trouble when science creates power without responsibility.

We get into trouble when language and art confuse rather than inspire.

I truly appreciate Wilson’s comment that “History makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology.” We too often forget that we are not the masters of the world we are its consciousness. Because of our social success we are like a hippo thrashing around in a rose garden—where HIPPO stands for Habitat destruction, Invasive species dispersal, Pollution, Population excesses, and Overharvesting of resources. If we can effectively rally our considerable smarts, Wilson sees a bright future. “If we save the living world,” he says, “we automatically save the physical world, because in order to achieve the first we must also achieve the second.”

Although Wilson is a rationalist, he admits to a certain amount of blind faith—perhaps a product of the eusocial talents he, like the rest of us, possesses. “Earth,” he believes, “by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one.” The tools we will need are an ethic of treating each other with simple decency (the Golden Rule), the unrelenting application of reason (the scientific demand for testable proof), and an acceptance of what we truly are: an intelligent, socially adept fragment of an old and continuously evolving biosphere.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Following the Shadow of Venus

Next Tuesday, June 4, the shadow Venus slowly plows across the face of the sun. Although not super spectacular to watch, this regularly occurring cosmic show provides scientists with lots of valuable information. In the 18th century, precise measurements of the event gave astronomers an accurate estimate of the size of the solar system. Today's scientists are using light from the event reflected off the moon to help calibrate their techniques for finding Earth-like planets around other suns. Read the details at

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Great Unconformity

The right images bring abstract ideas to life.

On May 19, I accompanied some geologists to Pinewood Lake west of Loveland, Colorado. Sporadic rain and chill air dulled the greens of spring growth. Normally blue skies were slate gray. At one point we detoured off the dirt trail, traversed a meadow, and made a U-turn hook that forced us to climb down a couple of feet of exposed vertical slabs of rock. We had just crossed what geologists refer to as the “Great Uncomformity.” Above an extension of the vertical rock strata lay many layers of red, pebble strewn, compressed soils from a time on our planet when dragonflies the size of pigeons darted between alien, green-trunked trees soaring skyward to bottle brush tops covered in spores.

In geologist’s terms, uncomformities are places where layers of rock come together that are very different in age, as measured by radioactive dating techniques or recognized stratigraphy. Angular uncomformities are such junctures where the layers are at odd angles to one another—sometimes as much as 90 degrees. When geologists see this, the image can strike them a mental blow because of what it implies: stretches of time laid bare that are so vast as to shatter human comprehension.

James Hutton (1726-1797) saw such a feature in England. It consolidated in a flash what he already suspected: that the Earth was a tremendously old planet—much older than what Biblical scholars proposed. He went on to write a two-volume work, Theory of the Earth, which crystalized this conclusion for others. (I write about this in more detail in my book, The Restless Earth: Fossils, Chelsea House, 2009.)

The following information helps make the image of rock layers lying at right angles to one another so powerful. The oldest of the vertically oriented rocks at this site can be dated at 1770 to 1670 million years old (1.7 billion years). This age predates all life more complicated than single cells. The vertical rocks were originally deposited as ocean sediments at a time when dry land was a sterile desert. Over time, they were crushed to rock; then partially melted. Imagine the vast stretches of time to form layered muds and sandstones accumulating millimeter by millimeter, and then imagine the additional eons necessary to compress everything to a semi-molten sludge. And THEN imagine the slow heave of forces that twists everything upright: old ocean beds stood on end.

But that’s only part of it.

Imagine the forces of wind, water, and time scouring a billion years away to dust, carrying it somewhere else to settle. Then a new, slow cycle of deposition begins—piling up 300 million years of forests and dragonfly wings—until the dinosaurs die and mammals build their empires on the ashes left behind.

Now, two temporal dynasties of dirt lie at right angles to each other, with a monumental gap eroded to oblivion between them. THAT is the Great Unconformity. That is what humbled Hutton and every geologist since. They become mesmerized by temporal vistas exposed at the intersection of angled eternities.

The Great Unconformity. Photo by Herb Saperstone