Friday, April 4, 2014

Dinosaur Tracks; the Great Dying; and a Black Death Burial Ground

We live in a world of beauty and wonders: and the occasional mass extinction. Learning about what's happened, and why, makes sense: to me, anyway.
  1. The Paluxy River Dinosaur Chase: Reconstructed
  2. Microbes and the Great Dying
  3. London's Black Death Cemetery: Lost, but Not Forgotten
  4. Emergency Burial Ground: Reasonable Respect

Life in a Changing Universe

I'm confident that God could have created a timeless universe that was complete, perfect, and utterly static. That's not what happened, though.

The world we live in is in a "state of journeying." It's not perfect, yet: but that's the direction it's going. It is being created by God: constantly upheld and sustained, as the Catechism puts it. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 302)

We live in a universe of order and beauty. We're created in the image of God: and can, by reason, find evidence of God's work in the universe. (Catechism, 32, 35-36, 301, 303-306)

Fathoming the Well of the Past

Back in the 19th century, some folks apparently decided that since the universe is orderly; and operates by rational, knowable, laws: a rational, orderly Creator can't exist.

Evidence that Earth is a great deal more than 6,000 years old, and that critters change, was presented as proof that an eternal and all-powerful God cannot exist.

Incredibly, quite a few tightly-wound Christians agreed: loudly. We've been dealing with fallout from that craziness ever since.

Like I've said before, things of faith come from God. Things of the world come from God.

Honest, ethical, study of this astounding universe cannot hurt our faith in God. (Catechism, 159)

It may, however, mean reconsidering some of our assumptions. I'm okay with that.

Ancient Universe, New Ideas

(From "The Three-Story Universe," © N. F. Gier, God, Reason, and the Evangelicals (1987), via Nick Gier, University of Idaho, used w/o permission.)

Back in the 1650s, a dedicated Calvinist named Ussher published an analysis of the Old Testament and other texts. He said that God created the universe at nightfall before October 23, 4004 BC.

That would make the universe just over 6,000 years old.

In the 17th century, a scholar who didn't specialize in natural philosophy might reasonably assume that Earth, and the universe, were no more than a few thousand years old. (September 27, 2013)

By the 19th century, evidence that Earth was far older had been accumulating. Some folks were willing to take the universe 'as is,' and kept learning.

Others decided that Ussher's chronology had to be right.

Some folks who accepted new ideas also didn't want God to exist: which may have encouraged a certain stubbornness among the folks who preferred Ussher's timetable. (September 27,2013; September 21, 2013)

The last I heard, scientists think Earth has been around for about 4,540,000,000 years, and figure that the universe is just shy of 13,800,000,000 years old.

Metaphorical Clay

(From Nobu Tamura, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Thrinaxodon showed up after the Great Dying.)

As the USCCB's "Understanding the Bible" points out, the Bible is Sacred Scripture: not a history text, science book, or political manifesto. That's why I'm not upset that Genesis has two different 'creation' narratives. This is from the second:
"2 the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being."
(Genesis 2:7)
I could assume that God literally took a mix of silicon, aluminum, magnesium, oxygen, hydrogen, calcium, and maybe potassium: sculpted the clay, and gave it divine CPR. That, in my considered opinion, would be silly. (January 25, 2012)

It seems much more likely that "...God formed man out of the clay of the ground..." tells us that God created us from the stuff of this world: from "clay" in a metaphoric sense. We're  not just "clay," though. We're made "in the image of God," not just something, but someone. (Catechism, 355-357)

Over the last century or two, we've learned a great deal more about the "clay" we come from, which apparently upsets some folks. I'm not bothered by the thought that God decided to create a vast, ancient, and changing, universe: or that our bodies have origins in "pre-existing living matter." (John Paul II (1986))

Even if I objected to God's plan, it wouldn't matter: except to me. God's God, I'm not. (June 10, 2012)


1. The Paluxy River Dinosaur Chase: Reconstructed

(From PLOS ONE, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"Only 17 photographs were used for the reconstruction"
"Dinosaur tracks: Prehistoric chase scene reconstructed"
Victoria Gill, BBC News (April 2, 2014)

"Scientists have digitally reconstructed the scene of a dinosaur chase - preserved in the mud of an ancient river bed in Texas.

"The tracks were left by two dinosaurs more than 110 million years ago.

"Seventy years ago, the whole trackway was removed from the river bed and divided into blocks, which were moved to different locations for study.

"Some of these blocks have been lost, but the team managed to use old photographs to reconstruct the site....

"...The tracks are from two dinosaurs, a large, herbivorous sauropod, and a carnivorous theropod - the group of top predators to which Tyrannosaurus rex belonged.

" 'In some places the theropod tracks are in the sauropod tracks,' said Dr Falkingham.

" '[This means] the theropod came after. So Bird interpreted this as a theropod chasing a sauropod.'

"Bird also drew maps of the whole site in the Paluxy River in Texas. But since then, some of the blocks the trackway was divided into have been lost.

"This study allowed the entire 45m (147ft) 'chase scene' to be seen as a whole once again for the first time since it was removed from the site...."
Scientists have reconstructed lost specimens from photographs before. The techniques used this time go a step or two further.

It's not an exact replica of the original. As the PLOS ONE article put it, "the single general direction of the photographs created linear artefacts [!] running along the length of the reconstructed model." Resolution at the far end of the scene is noticeably lower, too.

But now scientists have a 3D digital model of the entire set of tracks. This model can be studied, color-coded to make the tracks stand out: and distributed to other researchers.

With techniques like this, scientists can study sites and specimens that are too fragile for handling: or which now exist only as photographs.

(From PLOS One, used w/o permission.)
"Figure 3. Photogrammetric reconstruction of Bird's chase sequence.

"Far left, photo-textured and height mapped plan-view of the reconstructed trackway. Track labels according to Farlow et al. (1989). Right, photo-textured and height mapped views, top to bottom; isometric view along trackway, close up of high fidelity southern end, close up of poor quality northern end."


2. Microbes and the Great Dying

(From Shutterstock, via LiveScience, used w/o permission.)
"Lava flows exposed near Norilsk, Russia, are part of the Siberian Traps, the largest set of volcanic eruptions in recorded geologic history."
"Microbes May Have Caused Earth's Biggest Extinction"
Tia Ghose, LiveScience (March 31, 2014)

"A microbial feeding frenzy may have fueled the biggest mass extinction in Earth's history, new research suggests.

"The findings suggest that bacteria, with a little help from massive volcanism, produced large quantities of methane, thereby killing 90 percent of life on the planet.

"Mass extinction

"About 252 million years ago, more than 96 percent of ocean life and 70 percent of land-based life forms died in an event known as the end-Permian extinction. ... Scientists have proposed everything from massive meteor impacts to coal explosions to rifting supercontinents to explain this cataclysmic extinction.

"...atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels skyrocketed right around the time of the extinction. Sediments also show that during this time, the largest set of volcanic eruptions in recorded geologic history — called the Siberian Traps — spewed enough lava to cover the entire landmass of the United States...."
I've mentioned the Permian-Triassic extinction event, or Great Dying, before. (November 29, 2013)

It's the biggest mass extinction we know of: 96% of all ocean species, and 70% of all land vertebrate species didn't survive. We lost most of the crinoids, animals that look like plants; the last of the trilobites; and 99% of plankton species.

Whatever happened, it was a major catastrophe. The Great Dying included the only known mass extinction of insects.

(Alias Collections, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A mushroom crinoid.)

Small Survivors

(From Alexander Vasenin, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Crinoids in shallow waters near Komodo Island, Indonesia.)

The good news is that life went on. Crinoids don't come in as many varieties these days, but these filter feeders are still with us. New species appeared, including this not-quite-a-mammal.

(From Dmitry Bogdanov, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permisison.)
(Lystrosaurus murrayi,  not a mammal: but not like today's reptiles, either.)

I haven't decided whether that critter reminds me of a naked mole rat, or concept art for movies like "Son of Godzilla"or "Atomic Rulers."

Lystrosaurus murrayi was roughly the size of a small dog, by the way.

Size mattered in the Great Dying: smaller critters were more likely to survive. Most large woodland plant species and large herbivores didn't make it.

Volcanoes, Nickel, and a Positive Feedback Loop

The Siberian Traps might have poured enough carbon dioxide into Earth's atmosphere to cause the Permian-Triassic mass extinction. The problem with that idea is that volcanic eruptions should have left traces of a sudden spike in CO2, followed by a gradual drop.

Instead, CO2 levels apparently grew: fast, but not in a sudden burst. That pattern suggests a biological origin for the gas.

The team of scientists think that a particular sort of bacteria, Methanosarcina, upset the applecart by releasing methane: which other bacteria converted into CO2. Normally, this cycle wouldn't get out of hand: Methanosarcina need nickel to produce methane.

Nickel isn't a rare metal, but there generally aren't huge quantities of it lying around. That's where the Siberian Traps come in.

That nation-sized volcanic event dumped vast amounts of nickel and other metals. Critters didn't eat all of it, though. A quarter-billion years later, the Norilsk-Talnakh deposits are a major source of nickel, copper, and palladium.

Getting back to methane-belching bacteria, it looks like Methanosarcina flourished in the nickel-rich environment. Other bacteria metabolized methane from Methanosarcina, using inordinate quantities of oxygen and releasing CO2, which making life easier for Methanosarcina.

The positive feedback loop didn't last forever, of course. Change is the one thing that doesn't change in this world. New species appeared, and after two more major mass extinctions we started studying Earth's past.

  • "Methanogenic burst in the end-Permian carbon cycle"
    abstract; Daniel H. Rothmana, Gregory P. Fournier, Katherine L. French, Eric J. Alm, Edward A. Boyle, Changqun Cao, Roger E. Summons; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (approved February 4, 2014 (received for review September 27, 2013))

3. London's Black Death Cemetery: Lost, but Not Forgotten

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"The plague victims' bones reveal clues to their harsh lives in medieval London"
"Black Death skeletons unearthed by Crossrail project"
James Morgan, BBC News (March 29, 2014)

"Skeletons unearthed in London Crossrail excavations are Black Death victims from the great pandemic of the 14th Century, forensic tests indicate.

"Their teeth contain DNA from the plague bacterium Yersinia pestis and their graves have been dated to 1348-50.

"Records say thousands of Londoners perished and their corpses were dumped in a mass grave outside the City, but its exact location was a mystery.

"Archaeologists now believe it is under Charterhouse Square near the Barbican.

"They plan to expand their search for victims across the square - guided by underground radar scans, which have picked up signs of many more graves.

"Crossrail's lead archaeologist Jay Carver says the find 'solves a 660-year-old mystery'...."
At the time, folks in Europe called it the Great Pestilence or Great Plague. We started calling it the Black Death a few hundred years later.

Roughly half of the folks in Europe didn't die from the plague, but that's an average. A few places were nearly unaffected; some villages, like Wolfhampcote, were abandoned. Rumor has it that the Black Death wiped out Wolfhampcote, but we don't know for sure.

Losing track of a village shows, I think, the Black Death's impact. By and large, the English are conscientious about documentation: But with half the population dead or dying, meticulous record keeping probably wasn't a high priority.

Plague, Panic, and Persecutions

(From Michael Wolgemut, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Michael Wolgemut's Danse Macabre, or Dance of Death, 1493.)

Before scientists linked microorganisms and disease, folks were even more skittish about epidemics than today's public.

As the Black Death spread through Europe, folks guessed that "astrological forces, earthquakes, and the poisoning of wells by Jews" were to blame: or the wrath of God. (Black Death, Wikipedia)

It was a particularly dangerous time for the usual suspects: Jews, friars, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims, lepers, and Romani.

As I've said before, 'the good old days:' weren't.

It's easy, and currently fashionable, to use real persecutions conducted by panicked mobs and authorities during the Black Death as evidence that Christianity is dangerous.

Individual Christians can be, and sometimes are, as destructive as anyone else. But most of us don't gun down our families, or take a crowbar to art museum displays: and that's another topic or two. (October 7, 2010; December 26, 2008)

The Black Death may have had an effect on the crucifix, by the way.

Christus Trimphans, Christus Patiens

In the Romanesque era, quite a few crucifixes showed Christus triumphans, my resurrected Lord: like the Cross of San Damiano here.

The crucifix we're more familiar with, showing Jesus as Christus Patiens, suffering on the Cross, has been common since the Gothic era.

Romanesque transitioned into Gothic from the 12th to the 14th century, starting in France. The Black Death swept through Europe from 1348 to 1350: right around the middle of the 14th century.

I've run across assertions that the Man of Sorrows or Christus Patiens crucifix was a response to the Black Death: showing that Jesus understood suffering and death.

Folks may have appreciated the reminder during and after that great plague: but European crucifixes displaying a wounded and suffering Christ were developed in the 13th century.

What impresses me is how long it took for the Christus triumphans style to come back. It wasn't until the 20th century that crucifixes with a risen, triumphant, Jesus became popular again. Not that I remember, anyway.

That may show how strong memories of the Black Death are in my native culture.

I see value in the now-traditional Chistus Patiens and the once-traditional Christus triumphans style. I also appreciate Dali's "Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus):" partly because I know about tesseracts and visual symbolism, and that's yet another topic.

After the Black Death

The "Charterhouse 25" burial ground was used in at least two distinct phases: the earliest during the Black Death of 1348-50, then again during an outbreak in the 1430s.

By studying the remains, researchers found out quite a bit about the folks buried there. Many suffered from malnutrition, 16% had rickets. Numerous signs of back injuries and stress suggest heavy manual labor: by today's standards, anyway.

Perhaps more ominously, bodies from the 1430s had many more upper-body injuries. It's quite possible that after the Black Death, London became a more violent place.

Landholders who survived the Black Death still had their economic and political obligations: and nowhere near as many folks to get the work done. That gave serfs and peasants more bargaining power, and probably contributed to the 1381 Peasants' Revolt.

I've focused on the European Black Death, but many other areas were involved. That particular pandemic started in or near China, probably in the 1330s: then spread along the Silk Road, and by ships.

By 1400, world population had dropped from an estimated 450,000,000 to somewhere between 350,000,000 and 375,000,000.

Faith, Reason, and Research

Some Catholics may not like vaccines, or believe that being sick is a sign of either sin or virtue: but that's not what the Church says.

Getting obsessed with good health is a bad idea, but we're expected to take reasonable care of our health, and recognize that medical research is a good idea. Ethics matter, of course, as they do with any other aspect of our lives. (Catechism, 2288, 2289 2292-2296)

Again: faith and reason, science and religion, get along fine. God made the things of this world, and the things of faith: so honest study of either cannot lead us away from God. (Catechism, 31-35, 159)

4. Emergency Burial Ground: Reasonable Respect

(From Crossrail/PA, via The Guardian, used w/o permission.)
"Plague victims' skeletons are unearthed during the constructions of the Crossrail train link in London."
"Builders unearth Medieval plague victims in City of London square"
Crossrail project finds 12 skeletons below Charterhouse Square, suspected part of 14th century Black Death mass burial ground
Gwyn Topham, Archeology News, The Guardian (March 14, 2014)

"Seven centuries after their demise, the skeletons of 12 plague victims have been unearthed in the City of London, a find which archaeologists believe to be just the tip of a long-lost Black Death mass burial ground.

"Arranged in careful rows, the bodies were discovered 2.5 metres below the ground in Charterhouse Square in works for a Crossrail tunnel shaft beside the future ticketing hall for Farringdon station...."
The Black Death was an equal-opportunity plague. Peasants and tradesmen were no more, or less, immune than aristocrats. That's why emergency burial grounds like the one unearthed in London are so valuable to archeologists and historians.

As "The Black Death in London" author, Barney Sloane, said:
" 'An emergency cemetery is a really uncommon find: they were open for a very short while in response to a disease that wiped out 60% of London in months.

" 'They give us a snapshot of the health, lifestyle and demographic make up of London – and since the plague killed indiscriminately there should be a good cross-section.' "
(Gwyn Topham, Archeology News, The Guardian)
Studying these remains may be of more than academic interest. We're still not quite sure what caused the Black Death. It was probably bubonic plague, spread by fleas on rats; or anthrax, something like Ebola, or something else.

The good news is that DNA extracted from one of these bodies is consistent with yersinia_pestis, just what we'd expect from victims of a bubonic plague.

If that's what the Black Death was, we know how to deal with it now. Prompt treatment with antibiotics, and in some cases life-support systems, works: and so far we're staying ahead of antibiotic-resistant strains.

Even so, I don't think it hurts to learn more.

Research isn't, however, an ethics-free zone.

Honoring the Dead

"...Despite the considerable scientific interest in the site, archaeologists are content to limit themselves to studying the skeletons discovered in the shaft.

"Crossrail works have already meant excavating 300 skeletons with up to 4,000 from the 17th-19th centuries expected from the Bethlem 'Bedlam' hospital burial ground, now the site of Liverpool Street's new station.

"These bodies will be stored in the museum for up to two years before reburial. Elsden said specialist exhumation contractors have been called in to help.

"Most of the Bedlam dead will end up reburied, with a Christian memorial service, in Canvey Island in the Thames estuary.

"The rarer bones of the Black Death victims, lying untouched for seven centuries, are likely to kept overground a little longer for research...."
(Gwyn Topham, Archeology News, The Guardian)
I was pleased to learn that most of the folks whose bodies were found will be reburied. As a Catholic, I'm required to respect the dead and dying: and healthy folks, too, for that matter. (Catechism, 1929-1933, 2299-2301)

Now and then folks with religious objections to autopsies, organ transplants, or science in general, get their names in the news.

Here's part of what the Catholic Church says about death, dying, and respect:
"The dying should be given attention and care to help them live their last moments in dignity and peace. They will be helped by the prayer of their relatives, who must see to it that the sick receive at the proper time the sacraments that prepare them to meet the living God.

"The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy;92 it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.

"Autopsies can be morally permitted for legal inquests or scientific research. The free gift of organs after death is legitimate and can be meritorious.

"The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.93"
(Catechism, 2299-2301)
That part of the Catechism is of more than theoretical interest to me. My parents were cremated, and I had to consider the value of an autopsy when our youngest child died. I didn't request one: but only after learning that it would probably serve no useful purpose in preventing similar deaths.

Respect, Catholic style, is reasonable.

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.