Thursday, April 14, 2011

When dinosaurs roamed and tonsils were removed...

By Jim Heffernan

You can learn a lot about science in the weekly New York Times section called “Science Times.” Take Tuesday’s (April 12) edition. We learn a lot more about dinosaurs than my young grandchildren know (which is plenty) and about tonsils – who has them, who hasn’t, and why. Also lice.

But first, let me say I have never been big on science. Science frightened me in school because to understand it you had to concentrate really, really hard, which was not my practice during my formal education. Lazy, I believe it’s called.

So I always struggled with science, bumbling my way through high school biology (those poor frogs!) and getting out while the getting was good by taking no more science. In college you had to rack up some credits in a little bit of everything, so I took a series of courses called Natural Science I, II, etc., commonly referred to as “NatSci.”

Didn’t do well there either, even though we had to go through the whole dissection of worms and frogs routine again. I got a D in one of the NatSci segments and went to the professor to complain about my low grade. “You have no idea how lucky you were to get a D,” he responded when I questioned my grade. I thanked him and retreated, tail between my legs (metaphorically, of course, but you wonder).

So I believe this testimony establishes my non-science credentials once and for all.

But I have to admit that each Tuesday when I read the New York Times the science section has something that catches my eye. Like this week’s article on dinosaurs, focusing mainly on sauropods. Maybe you don’t know what a sauropod is. It’s a dinosaur with a huge neck – like, 50 feet long – and an equally long tail, with an elephant-like body in the middle, sans trunk. They can weigh as much as 70 tons, so we know that our obesity problem has been around for a long, long time.

I have often wondered why they give dinosaurs names that are so hard to spell. Like Apatosaurus, which the Times says were formerly known as Brontosaurus, not to mention Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus. Brontosaurus is the only one I have committed to memory because it makes me think of Brontosaurus Nagurski, the great football player from International Falls.

Anyway – and I don’t want to go too scientific on you – most of these huge sauropods ate nothing but vegetation, like the Duluth deer that munch up my wife’s flowers and shrubs, and also Adolf Hitler. They hardly had any teeth (the sauropods, not Hitler) and they had little teensy heads and practically no brains – not unlike what my science teachers saw on top of my own neck.

But enough about dinosaurs. They disappeared eons ago, if you have any concept of how long an eon is. Let me state without equivocation: an eon is longer than an era.

Moving ahead to our own era (an era can be as long as you want it to be) we find in this same Times science section all about how they used to routinely remove the tonsils from most children, but no longer. Hardly any children get their tonsils out these days. The dawn of the antibiotics era took care of all those sore throats.

Even I can recall the era when many kids missed school because they were undergoing tonsillectomies, not easy to spell either but better than Brachiosaurus. Happily, I escaped having my tonsils removed even though just about every kid I knew back then went through it. I was jealous.

Reading all this stuff on the same day made me wonder if dinosaurs had tonsils in those long necks, an area of scientific study I’m sure no scientist has ever approached without federal funding opposed by Republicans. But this is getting longer than I intended for human consumption, so I’ll have to leave out ruminations on Mr. Percy Dovetonsils, familiar to many of us in my college years, and also lice, the latter getting a big treatment in this week’s Science Times as well. Lice have been around as long as dinosaurs, it turns out.

In fact scientists in England are developing a family tree of lice going back 130 million years. Of course we all are familiar with more recent family trees of lice, although I never had them when so many other kids of my era did. I was jealous. But that was eons ago.

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