U. S. Space and Rocket Center

OK, it’s not paleontology, but it is relevant to the study of Earth’s natural history. After a brief stop yesterday at the Gray Fossil Museum (the site of the 2008 SeAVP Meeting), Tim and I continued our road trip today by heading to Huntsville, AL, to visit the U. S. Space and Rocket Center (incidentally, you get free admission with VMNH membership, which saved us $35).

It’s easy to forget how critical the space program is to understanding Earth systems, although I received a gentle reminder as I used the GPS on my iPhone to navigate across northern Alabama. Satellites have only been around for 50 years or so, and there have only been significant numbers of them for around 30 years. When I was an undergraduate GPS was the exciting technology on the horizon, and it has since revolutionized mapping.

Satellites are the primary means of studying ocean productivity patterns, which are so important to marine mammal evolution (among other things). Our knowledge of ocean and atmospheric circulation was sketchy at best prior to satellite observations. As recently as World War II, three U.S. Navy destroyers were lost in a single night when they plowed through a typhoon; it’s impossible to imagine such a thing happening today.

The connections between the space program and earth science goes on and on. Current hypotheses about the early (pre-Archean) history of the Earth are partly based on the geochemistry of rocks recovered from the moon; ancient river courses can often be seen directly in satellite photos; features such as past wave-cut benches that could previously only be identified through painstaking mapping can be spotted easily by satellite. In my introductory geology classes students do five different lab activities that require Google Earth. In fact, last summer before I headed to Wyoming I used Google Earth to help me remember the exact path to the Two Sisters site, by locating and following the tracks from our previous excavations.

Visits like this serve as a nice reminder of the interconnectedness of science. All of us really are working on a web of knowledge to explain the history of the universe and how it works, and there are an infinite number of places where our branches of study are linked together. One of the attractions of paleontology, at least for me, is that it is a kind of science crossroads where numerous specialities meet; that makes for exciting and intellectually stimulating work.

After leaving Huntsville, Tim and I drove to Atlanta in constant rain; but I knew it was coming, because I had seen the satellite images of the storm clouds at the Space Center.

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