Monday, March 24, 2008

Age of the Net - Got a question? Get an Answer.

This post is really about two different subjects.

In my last entry, I posted about this article from Livescience regarding the newest research finding on one of the oldest hominid fossils, O. tungenensis. The article focused on the work of one of our top researchers in the field of evolutionary morphology - Dr. William L. Jungers , head of the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. He was part of a team that analyzed Orrorin and determined that it was a biped (upright walker).

This is huge news, since Orrorin is thought to be over 6 million years old. The thought that came immediately to my mind was - how does this effect past estimates of the chimp/human split having occurred 5 or 6 million years ago? If Orrorin was already walking, and bipedality is thought to have occurred some considerable time after the split, then science should soon be revising the estimate backwards.

It's one thing for an amateur like me to toss out a question, and another thing to get solid information straight from the pros. So I emailed Dr. Jungers and he was kind enough to reply and allow me to share. Here's what he says:

If Sahelanthropus* in Chad is also a biped (hard to know for sure since it's just a cranium), then, yes, the human-chimp split is even earlier. The people who develop and use molecular clocks still need fossils to calibrate their clocks. So the split may well be closer to 8 than to just under 6 MYA.

More to the point, the answer to your question hinges on whether bipedalism evolved in the trees (e.g., as Brigitte Senut and Martin Pickford believe) or on the ground (from knuckle-walking ancestors).

*Sahelanthropus tchadensis (nicknamed "Toumai") is the only hominid fossil even older than Orrorin. It is estimated to be as much as 7 million years old.

The other point of this post is that you can get the information you are looking for so easily these days. Not all researchers are as accommodating as Dr. Jungers, but many of them are. This is not the first question that has come to mind where I contacted some knowledgeable scientist and received a scholarly answer. I've found it to be a particularly effective tool when I hit a bump in a book. Authors seem very willing to help you through your questions.


Lynet said...

That is one of the really nice things about the net -- the fact that you can interact so easily with the people who, in an earlier time, would have just put the content out there (in the form of a book or whatever) and left it there. I had a particularly nice experience recently with the author of a textbook I've been working through.

John Evo said...

When I was your age, if I'd had a friend in New Zealand we would have talked on the phone (rarely due to prohibitive cost) and exchanged occasional snail mail.

PhillyChief said...

I've had similar experiences. Sadly, I think some of these scientists are probably very eager to answer questions since (I'm guessing) they probably don't get very many emails from people interested in what they're doing outside of their colleagues. Eggheads don't get fan mail.

I contacted a woman in Oz who was doing a study on why dogs eat grass because I've had two dogs now who eat grass but each for completely different reasons. She was quite responsive and asked me for more details.

The internet is making the world smaller, which I think is a good thing. It makes for more "us" and less "them" I think.

bullet said...

You know, I would never have thought of that. I'd scour the net for info or at least resources, but I'd never think to just email someone I don't know a random question.


John Evo said...

Bullet - That might be why it works so well. If everyone had thought of doing it, people who had books and articles would be so inundated with email they would have time to read it all, let alone respond. Anyway, for now, it works! Give it a try.

And I wouldn't worry because you don't know about something I write. That's WHY I bother writing it. You know plenty of things I don't know. It's our combined strength that makes humans what we are.

Lifeguard said...

Interesting post. I love coming by here and getting my fill of interesting new scientific developments. I agree with what everyone else has said up here about how cool it is to be able to just pick up and email these experts.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

That's just cool. But then I think People magazine ought to forget the celebrities, and focus on people who actually add substance to our lives.

Them's people.

Brendan said...

John: You make a good point about the responsiveness of many researchers in responding to email. I've had some success here, too, and I've also a surprising amount of luck asking questions of people in other fields; especially politics. I think it's partly that some of the respondents are happy to hear from anyone outside their peer group, as Philly suggests, but I also think people who are dedicated to a particular field are happy to talk about it with anyone.

@bullet: I used to have reluctance to email people I didn't know, too. My biggest hurdle was the feeling that I'd be bothering them. But then I decided, what the hell, how hard is it to ignore an incoming email? I also decided that the act of making an email address readily available is an implicit invitation to get in touch. I urge you to give it a shot -- there are pleasant experiences to be had.