WordCamp was yesterday. As I mentioned elsewhere, I planned to be there, and I was. I drove down in the early morning (had to be there a little before eight to start serving kolaches and coffee) and didn’t get unduly hot on the way, in my un-air-conditioned car. I was able to listen to the keynote address by Matt Mullenweg, one of the founders of WordPress and native son of Houston (although he lives someplace else now), and it was quite entertaining. I got to talk face to face with Houston blogger Shawn Quinn. He and a few other Houstonians started following me on Twitter after I posted the first bit about WordCamp, and I started following them, too. So it was cool to meet Shawn.
The first session I went to was about WordPress 3.0. And why did I think I’d understand any of that? It was in the “Developer Track,” which is that whole other country I mentioned in the earlier post. But the speaker, Stephanie Leary, wrote a book, and if the sample chapter I downloaded as a PDF is any indication, I think I could learn a lot about that country from the book. After that I wanted to sit in on one of the “Blogger Track” sessions, but the room was overflowing with people, so I thought if I was going to have to spend an hour on my feet, I would go see the Archaeopteryx fossil that was on exhibit only for another month (and was the other reason for me to be there in the first place). So I went upstairs to get my ticket. And let me just say how nice it is to have a membership in the museum and be able to go over to the ticket window just for members, where there was no line, and then get the discount on the ticket itself. Sweet.
For those who aren’t fossil fanatics, paleontology buffs, or evolutionary biology groupies, Archaeopteryx (“r-kee-OP-ter-iks”) is one of those precious “missing links” between one major ancient form — in this case dinosaurs — and a more modern one — birds. The first one of these fossils was found in a quarry in Germany famous for its limestone – and its fossils. In fact, fossils often occur in limestone because limestone is formed in marine environments (or formerly marine environments) and objects can become entombed in marine sediments and remain there as the sediment turns to stone. Anyway, the German quarry is at Solnhofen, and in 1861, just a few years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, a single fossilized feather was discovered. Later, a complete fossil of an animal resembling a lizard but covered with feathers was found in stone of the same age — approximately 150 million years. Eventually nine more fossils were unearthed, and debates carried on for decades over whether they were true birds, true dinosaurs, or a true transitional form from one to the other. There’s not much argument that they are some of the most famous fossils around, though. The one visiting the Houston Museum of Natural Science normally lives in Wyoming, and it was sharing the exhibit with an assortment of other fossils from the same limestone quarry at Solnhofen, Germany.
A lot of the fossils were of fish, which makes sense if the limestone started out as ocean bottom sediment. There were even fossil Coelacanth (SEE-la-canth), a type of ancient fish belonging to a group called the “lobe-finned fish,” which were thought to be the transitional form between fish and amphibians. A few living Coelacanths (the scientific name of the surviving form is genus Latemeria , with two distinct species) were found in deep ocean environments off the coast of South Africa in the late 1930′s, and Indonesia as late as 1998. Hanging on since the Cretaceous Period, when they disappeared from the fossil record.
After I worked my way through the fossil fish, turtles and lizards, a few plants, and some surprising insect fossils, and some truly gorgeous brittle stars, I arrived “in the presence.” The “Arky” fossil was grouped with some other fossils I wasn’t expecting, and the planners of the exhibit had truly saved the best for last. Pterosaurs! I went to see Archaeopteryx because it’s a beautiful fossil with a unique place in the fossil record, but I was always nuts over pterosaurs — the flying dinosaurs. I have a book about them. I have a… well, let me illustrate.
"Swoop," with a Cretaceous friend
Yes, it’s a Beanie Baby. Yes, there were Beanie Baby dinosaurs. Yes, I had to have the pterosaur. Funny thing, too. The first pterosaur fossils, of Pterodactylus, were not a whole lot bigger than my beanie baby. They were about the size of sand pipers, according to the labels next to the fossils. As a kid I had imagined them as monstrous huge, which maybe said more about my imagination. But I kind of like the idea of little flying dinousaurs that I could hold in my hands. Okay, more wild imaginings.
Maybe I’ve picked up a bit of computer geek gloss, but I’m still a science nerd at my core. This is still the stuff that rocks my world. I only wish I’d had my camera with me, because they were allowing people to take pictures — something I couldn’t do last fall when I went to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.
Oh, well. I went. I saw. I marveled. Then I went back to Camp.