Sunday, October 28, 2007

Walking with dinosaurs

When I moved to Texas, I did so with trepidation. I was used to the welcoming, green outdoors of the Pacific Northwest, and spending many summer weekends enjoying the crisp air of the North Cascades or the Olympic rainforest, walking on soft pine needles. So the extreme harshness of the Texas climate, which rarely says “come out and play” didn’t appeal too much to me.

That said though, I found that Texas has a range of natural terrains and wildlife, from complete, arid desert to rolling hills with rivers and lush forests. And what’s more, some of them are surprisingly close to the Dallas-Fortworth urban sprawl. A week ago, we spent a day in one of these often overlooked jewels just a stones throw from Dallas, the Dinosaur valley state park, where some of the world’s finest collections of dinosaur fossils, prints and tracks had been discovered.

When we reached the park, the tiny visitor center disappointed me, but only for a moment. The little display room was surprisingly superbly informative. I knew that a long time ago, the region that is now the gulf coast was part of the ocean. But I didn’t realize that what is today Dallas (and hundreds of miles from the coast) was once part of a large, shallow sea, or lagoon. Now fossils usually are hard to find, and it is even harder to find prints or tracks left behind millions of years ago. The tracks found in this park were mostly made about 150 million years ago, in the Cretaceous era. The majority of the tracks found here belong to two different types of dinosaurs, three-toed meat eating theropods called Acrocanthosaurus, and huge prints of giant sauropod herbivores called Pleurocoelus. Interestingly, outside the park visitor center are life-size sculptures of the more celluloid friendly Tyrannosaurus rex and the giant brontosaurus. A serendipitous combination of soil and rock compositions of the region and climate allowed the prints of the dinosaurs to be preserved. Limestone, sandstone and mudstone gradually deposited in the region, where the theropods and sauropods perhaps migrated through, or came for food or prey. They left their prints on this limey mud, which was gently covered up by different sediment. Millions of years later, the Plauxy river (a tributary of the Brazos) flowed by, and slowly disloged some of the other sediment, revealing the dinosaur tracks for all of us to see, while other tracks were found later, by human excavation.

The visitor center nicely explained how these tracks were formed, how they were discovered, and also outlined the various timelines as well as a description of the formation of continents from pangea through gondwana to present times. In addition, the visitor center described the geology of the region, and the types of fossils found in the region, including those of ancient marine life. All of this should be a part of all school curricula in geography and natural history, but unfortunately, I don’t think much of this is taught anymore. At least, some of the visitors there (particularly the kids) seemed surprised to read this. It seems like a huge amount of irreparable damage has been done by the Flintstones, misinformative Hollywood movies and persuasive religious brainwashing.

The “fall” weather was perfect for the park, since after a long summer the river was just a gentle stream. Most of the dinosaur tracks were found along the river, and the shallow water meant that we could see the prints beautifully through the slightly muddy water (though I don’t know how good my photography skills are in that shot). The water in the rivers deepest point was at best waist high, so it meant the setting was perfect for splashing about in, or standing perfectly still to watch curious tadpoles nibble your toes. Along the bank of the river, you can look at both the sauropod and theropod tracks, as well as a few points where the tail drag of a sauropod has been preserved. While looking at a print in a photograph hardly inspires awe, staring at a real footprint many times the size of my oversized, ugly feet was more than sufficient to put things in perspective. I’m pretty glad humans weren’t around when the dinosaurs were. I’ve seen elephant dung, and if these beasts produced ten times that amount in a single sitting, I don’t even want to imagine how the Cretaceous era must have smelt. Of course, there’s also the possibility of mistaking a little hole in the soil as a dinosaur track. But the little pamphlets at eh visitor center explain how to distinguish them, and once you see the real tracks, it is easy to distinguish them from natural erosion, with the clear absence of any distinct features. There’s some nice hiking to be done in the park as well, and if you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of some of the endemic birds of this region as you walk on trails along the river or on the little wooded limestone hills. I also stumbled upon some gorgeous lizards along the trail that were so well camouflaged amongst the rocks that I would never have spotted them had they not been startled and run for their lives.

Last and certainly the least, being in Texas, it was hardly surprising that a few miles before the state park itself there was a little “creation evidence museum”. Here's a picture of it, that little building no bigger than a little barn, without a single car in the vast parking lot. I’m sure the devil came by one night and planted the fossils and prints all over the park, along with traces of marine creatures, not to mention the limestone soil itself, to fool us all into thinking this region was underwater centuries ago.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Book review: Textures of time: Writing History in South India

(Apologies for being a bit irregular on the posts. Work has been rather busy the past week, but things are back to normal now)

As an avid amateur historian, reading about the history of kingdoms and cultures (and their influences on religion) has been a long standing hobby of mine. So my interest was more than piqued when I obtained a copy of Textures of time: Writing history in South India 1600-1800.

The main focus of the book is rather novel. It has been postulated often, by numerous historians, that India did not have a tradition of recording and preserving history. It has been said that history in India is a mixture of fact, legend, myth and popular belief. The Arab polymath, Al-Biruni, observed way back in the 10th century that “the Hindus did not pay much attention to the historical order of things.”

A substantial section of historians conclude that a historiographical tradition came to India with the Europeans coming and establishing themselves in India. It was they who brought with them the dry, “factual” style of recording history. This assertion usually crumbles under the mountain of historiographical literature the Delhi sultans, and subsequently the Mughals and their feudal nobles left behind. But two questions immediately raise themselves; the first being that perhaps the Indian historiographical traditions were borrowed from the well developed Persian and Turkish systems of recording history, and two, what about South India? Did the literary traditions of South India not have a historiographical tradition at all, but only had facts blended into stories and myths.

The authors of this book, Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, decide to investigate this assertion, and also see if they could bridge the somewhat artificial divide between “Hindu” and “Muslim” writing, by digging into a vast collection of resources from the 16th to the 18th century. They draw on primarily Telugu sources, along with a collection of Tamizh, Sanskrit, Marathi, Kannada and other sources of the time. Using an approach where the authors combine story-telling (of events from those times) with a systematic and rigorous analysis of those works, the authors steadily set about disproving that hypothesis.

For their material, the authors draw upon various court writings by scribes in the courts of various rulers; the songs and works of ballads and poets of the times, folk epics, as well as prose narratives of the time. Early on in the book, the authors point out that any choice of genre for writing history isn’t a constant, but has changed over time, as the society changes its preferred literary style. So, over time, a historical work ends up becoming a “literary work”. In the course of the book, as they explore four major historical incidents between the 16th and 18th century, based in what is today Andhra Pradesh and Northern Tamil Nadu, the authors subtly but elegantly point out that any history is invariantly written in the dominant literary genre of a particular community at that particular time (something that is quite intuitive, yet overlooked). For example, if puraana is the dominant literary form of the time, history would be written in puraana style, or kaavya style when kaavya is the dominant literary style. Obviously, this means that in any style, you will find both history and literature, and the trick is in distinguishing the two. But there are definite textual markers, syntax and expression styles, metrical devices and other indicators that distinguish literature from history. It is these that the authors try to distinguish and point out through the book.

The key question is how can they distinguish historical work from non-historical texts. The authors say that the answer lies in adopting a new way of reading the text. The “texture” of historical writing is substantially different from literature, though the style used may be the same. Part of the reason that this difference has been lost is because, to modern historians, the context has often been lost. In any story, the relation between the teller of the tale and the audience is of paramount importance. But if their connection is displaced, confusion is but inevitable. Literary traditions are easily broken, particularly when the audience for that text is “fragile”.

In this book, the authors explore stories which many of us would consider lesser-known, yet were well known (at least in South India) at the time. The major incidents explored in this book were recorded by numerous writers of the time (or even a little later) in the karanam style. Karanams were primarily accountants or court scribes of the time, and the authors describe their collective style of writing as the “karanam” style. Karanam scribes had been well established all across Telugu lands for centuries, and there exists a vast mountain of their recordings, from before the time of the Vijayanagara empire, and their traditions continued to evolve and develop long after Vijayanagara had fallen.

The authors start with the battle of Bobbili (which took place in 1757), of which detailed recordings and folk ballads were composed in Telugu. It essentially was a battle between two small-time warrior velama kings (who were both technically under the rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad). One of them decides to usurp the lands of the other (the “valiant” ruler of Bobbili, Pedda Bobbili Raju), and does so using the help of a confused, clueless French general, Bussey. The beauty of this tale is that it had distinct chronicles written by various sides; the admirers of the Bobbili Raju, or the rival treacherous king of Vijayanagaram (later Vizianagaram, and not to be confused with the earlier Vijayanagara empire).

In all these chronicles, while the characters may be described in different hues, and the valor or cowardice of one character might be exaggerated or diminished, the major facts of the story remain remarkably consistent. What’s more, the “dry, historical” recordings of a few English of French sources who were present match exquisitely with the facts in the Telugu sources. Similarly, later the authors explore the tale of the Desingu raja, in Senji, in the Arcot region of (present) Tamil Nadu. This minor chief rose up agains his lord, the Nawab of Arcot. Here too diverse sources, from karanams to folk singers, to Jaswant Rai, who chronicled history for the Nawab of Arcot, have remarkably consistent details. Jaswant Rai was a munshi, the north Indian equivalent of a karanam, who chronicled the life of the then Nawab of Arcot (who fought the king of Senji fort). As the authors take us through these (in themselves fascinating) tales, they consistently point out aspects of the narrative that shift from fact to fiction and to eulogy. The distinctions are subtle, but clearly consistent and significant.

By the end of the book, you are certainly convinced that there was a historiographical tradition in South India, which was very mature long before the establishment of European presence in India. However, like most academic books, this one too left me with many thoughts.

One question that immediately comes up is that a main intention of this book was to show a substantial and well developed histographical tradition in South India that was thriving before the establishment of European colonial rule in India. So, would the earlier literary and historical traditions of the preceding South Indian empires (Vijayanagara, the Kakatiyas, the Pallavas, Cholas, Chalukyas etc) not be a better choice of material to show this? Those sources distinctly preceded the arrival of the Europeans, and were possibly less influenced by Mughal, Persian or Turkish histographical traditions as well. A related but obvious question would be to ask how well developed the historiographical traditions of those times were in South India. Could Al-biruni have been right, and did even the karanam style develop after the Mughals came to India? How different was the style of recording history in the 8th century versus the 16th?

A particularly interesting question would be to ask if there were similarities in the style of writing of Indian muslim writers (who went beyond the traditional Persian style of historiography) and other Hindu writers (of the karanam tradition). How much did each influence the other’s style? Was there an effort made by writers of each style to remain true to their chosen literary styles, or was there a strong influence of each style, and co-evolution? After all, by the 16th century, at least the northern parts of South India were strongly under the influence of the Mughals or the Dakkani sultans etc.

Of course, as the old saying goes, “history is written by the victors.” Even the most hardened skeptic will agree to some truth in that saying. The authors perhaps expect only South Asian historians to read this book, and therefore much of the book remains only of academic interest for the hardcore historian. But their engaging writing style, and admirable choice of thoroughly entertaining ballads and stories with which to make their points, actually makes the book rather readable. Through their systematic and nuanced analysis the authors go a long way in demolishing the idea that there was no concept of recording history in South India.

(Crossposted from Desicritics)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Gaping dorks in vendor shows

All major campuses around the country have major product/vendor shows every few months. Here companies big and small, from Invitrogen and Sigma to little-unknown-biotech all have their tables and flyers and product displays of the latest and best in lab technology.

But what's hilarious is that most of us scientists are such loser dorks that what attracts us most to the displays aren't super-efficient pipette displays, but bouncy stress relieving squeeze balls, fluorescent orange pens, permanent markers that have caps and tips on both ends, and the lure of the odd T-shirt. We're like kids in a candy store.

That, and the attraction of free food. Nothing can bring together a bunch of graduate students and postdocs better than tables filled with donuts, cookies, bagels or more.

There I was, bright and early this morning, lining up to collect my supply of utterly useless items, and gawk at freebies. I ended up with about a dozen pens, a floaty for eppendorf tubes, a weird box to keep "suff" in, and a T-shirt (yes! I will advertise anything for free).

And then there was the highlight of my day. I got the most fascinating freebie of them all, a ball point pen that has a transparent liquid gel at the other end, filled with little floating balls, and a little on-off switch that turns on an led that changes colors.

Life couldn't be better.