Geotimes Logo FROM THE EDITOR March 1999

It’s 1999: So how do people learn about science? If you go by sheer numbers, television is the hands-down winner. What’s on? Well, we have some reasonable choices — Nova, Nature, National Geographic specials, and Bill Nye, the Science Guy. The science presented is generally mainstream, well-documented, and fun. Although aimed at the novice, these programs are enjoyable for professional scientists, too, especially when they can view research in other fields.

Another way to learn about Earth is to visit natural history museums. Museum displays are well-documented, engrossing, and — with the introduction of multimedia computers — engaging as well. The “new” norm of hands-on displays, created to teach not only documented scientific facts but also the scientific method, puts smiles on the faces of all who experience them. Museums around the world are learning how to compete with TV. By highlighting the entertainment aspects of science, they help demystify it and make it more accessible. As we move into the next century, there are many opportunities to present “real science” to all who are interested. However, it wasn’t always that way.

Go back to 1850. How did people learn about science then? Museums were key, although most people probably saw them just as collections of curiosities, all organized into Linnaean classifications. The museum directors and researchers of the day also held their specimens and scientific method in high regard and strove to keep their collections scientifically sound. I would bet that only a small portion of the public, unfortunately, spent significant time in those hallowed halls of learning.

But just as science is now brought to us via TV, science was brought to our ancestors by a few enterprising characters who recognized the lucrative possibilities of taking their curiosities on the road. These itinerant showmen set up displays in both small towns and big cities, entertaining and “educating” a public fascinated by the wonders of nature. These animated lecturers and their traveling exhibits were, in most cases, the only brush with science that people had. But many presentations offered more show than substance.

In this issue, Robert Dott Jr. (University of Wisconsin) and William Jordan (Millersville University) introduce us to just such a character — Albert C. Koch, one of the 19th century’s peripatetic purveyors of paleontology. Known in the United States and Great Britain as an industrious fossil collector, he was the promoter of the “Hydrarchos,” a monster of Biblical proportions. In “Dr. Koch’s Horrendous Hydrarchos,” Dott and Jordan describe the interest and controversy created by “Doctor” Koch in the public and geologic circles of the day. Koch appears to have been more conscientious than most of his lot, but he certainly recognized that a little exaggeration did wonders for box-office receipts.

We conclude our two-part series on the Late Paleocene Thermal Maximum — “The Day the Sea Stood Still” — in this issue. Last month, Tom Yulsman (University of Colorado) wrote of the research on Paleocene foraminifera from the Caribbean that documented a period of climatic “bedlam.” Now, Yulsman describes the evidence for weakened oceanic circulation, increased volcanic activity, and geochemical suggestions for a large source of methane, all of which contributed to the devastation of deep-sea marine life near the end of the Paleocene.

We also hear from Andrew Miall (University of Toronto), who makes a case for writing books in his “Comment.” “Core Studies” guest contributor, Luli Stern (American Association for the Advancement of Science), describes how teachers are currently evaluating earth-science curriculum materials, and “Industry Watch” columnist, Rich Migues (Bechtel Corporation), tells us of recent trends in engineering and environmental geology.
Good reading.

Victor V. van Beuren

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