Monday, September 29, 2014

Meet the Kardashian family of the fossil world

Hallucigenia, my bestie.
Remember this weird little dude, Hallucigenia, who lived about 500 million years ago?

He's so freaky that scientists can't place him in a family tree with any other animals -- they don't even know which end is his head and which is his rear. Oh, Hallucigenia, you oddball, orphaned critter with a mysterious butt, I love you truly.

But wait. What's this I hear? Some scientists have just discovered its family tree! Turns out Hallucigenia has two living relatives, who also happen to be among the most lovable and preposterous creatures on our planet. Hallucigenia is related to:

1. Velvet worms
In some species, the male puts some sperm
onto the female's back, then the sperm
melts her skin to get inside her body.
Ouch, tough break for the ladies.
OK, get this. Turns out Hallucigenia's legs each ended in a kind of foot with two opposing claws. These claws later evolved to form the mouth of today's velvet worms.
Yes, that said mouth. Velvet worms' jaws are "no more than legs modified for chewing," according to the scientists
Think how weird this is. The shape of the Hallucigenia claw turned out to be pretty handy for chewing, so after a few hundred million years -- voila! -- there's the foot, right in somebody's mouth, chewing. Just goes to show you that evolution is willing to make use of any tool for any job. (But don't try feeding your foot a sandwich. It probably won't work.)
2. Water bears
Way kooler than any Kardashian.
If you don't know about water bears, hang on to your hat. These tiny eight-legged dudes can survive basically anything. No really, anything. Temperatures from nearly absolute zero to above boiling. Enough direct radiation to kill a person. They can dehydrate and go dormant for ten years, and then come back to life, all fine and ready to party. Best of all, they have survived the vacuum of space. All true; look it up and fall in love.
As a longtime fan of both Hallucigenia and water bears, I am so happy to find out they are cousins. How did I miss the family resemblance?
This excellent family tree also includes several fan favorites in the extinct category, such as Anomalocaris and Opabinia. Check your Giant Evolution Timelines for those little guys.

Like the Kardashians, everyone in this family tree is bizarre, attention-getting, and related in confusing ways. They are physically repulsive and riveting at the same time. I can't look away. When's the family reunion? 

Smith MR, Ortega-Hernández J. Hallucigenia's onychophoran-like claws and the case for Tactopoda. Nature. 2014 Aug 17. doi: 10.1038/nature13576. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 25132546.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

BioLogos is the new black

Some conversations I just cannot hold. Sports banter, for example, is impossible (was the World Cup the one with the ice skates?) My brother-in-law's stem cell research is way over my head. I can't discuss politics with the cat.

Nothing against sports, brothers-in-law, or cats, of course. Especially nothing against cats. I wish I could have these conversations, but I tragically lack the perspective, knowledge, talent, and good looks.

I also can't discuss evolution with people who resist it based on religious belief. My third-generation-atheist brain just isn't wired that way. I say, "Hey, check out this gorgeous fossil record!" And then they say, "Hey, check out this gorgeous religious text!" And then we blink at each other, stuck.

Enter BioLogos, a new non-profit that aims to bring evolution and other sciences to Christians. It was founded by the geneticist Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (read: Very Very Big Cheese), who famously went from atheism to theism. If anyone can hold this conversation, it's him.

BioLogos present Christians who don't accept evolution with religious
arguments for it. They also make a safe religious space for people who would otherwise be Christian but are turned off by the science-denying elements.

I have proof of its conversational prowess. The other day I had a phone call -- a lovely chat, even! -- with Chris Stump at BioLogos. We exchanged ideas. We found common ground. We chatted about our kids. It was magnificent.

This makes me very happy. Pharrell-Williams-style happy. Understanding how we evolved is one of the crowning achievements of humanity, in my humble opinion, right up there with smallpox eradication, space flight, and pasta. Somebody needs to sort out the enduring resistance to evolution, and since I personally stink at that, I'm delighted that BioLogos is on the case.

PS. If you haven't yet, please consider signing up to show your interest in the Giant Evolution Timeline. With enough names we can maybe flag down a publisher. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

In which we get a nibble from National Geographic Kids

Friends, something went down in New Paltz, New York last weekend. Something small, nerdy, and delightful. It was:

I learned many, many delicious things there, but most importantly, I met one Ms. Shelby Alinsky, Children's Book Editor at National Geographic Kids. Take a good look at Shelby, my Rockstar #1.

Shelby (left) and I weren't actually
standing in a lovely meadow.
But we look nice there, right?
I had arranged for a one-on-one consultation with Shelby, and I confess to some nerves. National Geographic Kids is one of the publishers I have daydreamed about for years, and now I was meeting an actual, living, Homo Sapien editor who might just hate the Timeline. Oh, jeez, how's my hair?

Rarely have my fears been so thoroughly dismissed by reality. Shelby is lovely. Within a few minutes was on the floor with me, checking out the Timeline and asking great questions. We got to chatting, and ended up taking about 45 minutes instead of the planned 15.

Best of all, she expressed interest! She took a Timeline and Ancient Creature Cards to "discuss with the team." By the end of the weekend she was saying things like, "I could see a great future for this." Oh, Shelby, how I love thee.

I know, I know, I know. I shouldn't get my hopes up and all that. Whatever. They're up already.

David (left) and I weren't really flying
through space close to the Rosette Nebula.
But he's a big ol' space geek, so I put us there.
Also, there was a Rockstar #2, one David Aguilar, Director of Science Information at the Harvard Observatory, and author of many great books for kids about space. Check out this recent one, which also deals with evolution in really funny, unexpected ways.

David and I also had a one-on-one consultation, in which he was kind and supportive. By the end of the weekend we were like old friends. Well, old friends who just met. And who don't really know each other. Listen, I got his card, what do you want?

So there you have it: hope.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Publishing the Giant Evolution Timeline: A Work in Progress

The wise ones say that when you are launching something new out into the world, the ratio of rejections to acceptances is 100 to 1. That's 100 rejection letters we have to rack up before we should even begin to hope for any returned love. My husband, a playwright, is probably up to fifty or sixty rejections for his scripts.

I am up to three. Oh, jeez.

The current plan for getting the Giant Evolution Timeline into the hands of everyone who wants one -- and I still get plenty of requests -- is to find a book publisher for it. A real publisher, the kind with logos and sales channels and marketing budgets and official stuff like that.

But lately I've learned some curious things about the children's book industry. For example, there is no such thing as a publisher with sales channels and marketing budgets and official stuff like that. Those days are gone. And that most publishers will only consider manuscripts that they requested directly or that come from a literary agent. Also that most publishers don't like author-illustrators. They want the author to provide the text only and then they pair it with the illustrator of their choice. Often the author and illustrator never meet.*

So I'm gamely shoving all that aside and looking for an agent. So far I've approached three, carefully following the bizarrely detailed instructions for how to send a Query Letter.** One sent a form rejection, one sent a personalized rejection that showed she did read it, and one sent a lovely, warm, thoughtful rejection that I will cherish forever.

Ah, me. I'll just keep sending these letters out. Why? Because a girl's gotta get to 100 rejections somehow.

*This is a depressing, chilly, and unpleasant truth that should never be revealed to children. Think of your favorite picture books. How perfectly intertwined are the words and the pictures! The author and illustrator must be old friends who love each other dearly and have shared many a glass of wine! But no. They are in an arranged marriage shaped by market forces. Perhaps they hate each other. Oh, no, please don't tell the children.

** Little did I know the sheer cosmic importance of The Query Letter. It has to be The Cheery Letter, never The Bleary, Weary, or Dreary Letter. Sometimes mine come out as The Beery Letter, which is not good. But I digress.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Found! The cute, fuzzy ancestor of bears, wolverines and your kitty (To read with the kids)

Did you know that your kittycat and the wild hyenas of Africa evolved from the same animal? Kids, meet Dormaalocyon Latouri, or Dorma for short.

Dorma was a small, 2-pound, squirrelish, tree-loving mammal living about 55 million years ago in what is now Europe. Scientists have discovered a new bunch of fossilized teeth from Dorma and figured out that she is the ancestor of lots of animals alive today, including our excellent kitty, Mr. Opposite, and your excellent kitty, if you have one.

What does it mean to be Mr. Opposite's ancestor, you ask? Well, take a look at Mr. Opposite's Family Tree #1 (which contains females only to keep it simple.) You can see that Mr. Opposite and his sister share one mom kitty. He and his cousins don't have the same mother of course, but they do share one grandma kitty with Mr. Opposite. If we include his second cousins too, you can see that all twelve cousins share one great grandma kitty. Let's call her Norma. (Hi, Norma!)

Norma lived maybe ten years ago, long enough ago for her to have her two babies, for those babies to grow up and have their babies, and for them grow up and have more babies, including Mr. Opposite, who is alive today. Because she is the shared great-grandma, Norma is the ancestor of Mr. Opposite and all his cousins.

Family trees can go back waaaaay longer than ten years. They can go back so far that they show the evolution of one kind of animal into another. Check out Mr. Opposite's Family Tree #2, which goes back 55 million years, to Dorma's time.

You can see from this tree that Dorma is the shared ancestor not only of Mr. Opposite, but also of all his distant cousins alive today: coyotes, eared seals, wolverines, skunks, red pandas, bears, raccoons, mongoose, hyenas, civets, and African civets!

Even though Dorma went extinct a long, long time ago, she left us all these fuzzy mammalian carnivores, one of whom is in my lap purring as I write this.

Thanks, Dorma, you're the greatest.