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November 28, 2010

Reptilian Brain

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Matthew Yglesias sticks up for the study of reptiles. Good timing: New Scientist has this great, quick post on how the snake may have gotten his fangs:

[Jon Mitchell of the University of Chicago] and his colleagues discovered 26 Uatchitodon [a late-Triassic reptile] teeth in North Carolina. Their age places them between the other two sets, and lining up all the teeth shows how grooves that initially formed at the surface gradually lengthened and deepened until they became enclosed canals (Naturwissenschaften, DOI: 10.1007/s00114-010-0729-0).

Snake fangs probably evolved independently of Uatchitodon, says Mitchell, but the sequence of events was most likely similar. Bryan Grieg Fry from the University of Melbourne, Australia, is convinced this is the case, and says the fossil series is “fantastic”.

Are you really going to get youngsters interested in natural-science education by downgrading studies of real-life monsters and folding them into discussions of birds? I tried as hard as I could in school not to learn about natural science. It was a clear error. More reptiles, on display in more places accessible to New York City public-school students, may not convince others to avoid my sorry course, but fewer reptile displays can’t possibly help.

And we’re in a national science crisis, according to the Navy. A couple of weeks ago, I covered the Office of Naval Research’s Science and Technology conference. From Undersecretary Bob work to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead on down, a sub-theme of the gathering was palpable anxiety that American youths are opting out of STEM (“science, technology, engineering and mathematics”) education. My friends who study education trends can correct me if that’s actually wrong, but it has the leading thinkers of a cerebral and science-based service rather concerned. Fewer engineers mean a less-dynamic navy.

To be sure, it’s ugly and cynical to say we need to emphasize science education lest Our Military Strength Be Imperiled, but what else works in American education discourse? If I remember my American History of Science course* correctly — rest in peace, Professor Pauly — the high-water mark for public spending on science research was the early Cold War, precisely because of the Soviet threat. One academic beneficiary: the field of oceanography, thanks to the Navy’s obvious need for it. Bring on our lizards.

* Full disclosure: I failed this class the first time I took it. But I think I got a B when I took the make-up.

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