Science that isn't very scientific
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — Sometimes, you just get it wrong.
Though I generally believe them, I've always been a bit perplexed at the way paleontologists seem to be able to take a single fossilized tooth and deduce everything about its owner short of last meal and favorite color. But while current theories about prehistoric life may be considered fairly reliable, 'facts' still remain subject to revision (witness the Brontosaurus), and some declarations about living and extinct creatures, thanks to honest mistakes or outright deception, have proven to be impressively wide of the mark. (At least, as far as we can tell for now.) Strange Science takes a look at over 2,000 years of best-guesswork and offers a casual collection of history's biggest misses, while demonstrating that science...isn't always an exact science.
The private-interest production of a man named Michon Scott (who states for the record on his home page that he is neither a professional scientist, educator nor historian), Strange Science could be called an online museum of sorts, but not one to be confused with the virtual presences of such institutions as the Smithsonian or Franklin Institute. Rather, think more along the lines of those roadside oddity emporiums, located on the outskirts of towns and along highways in the middle of nowhere. (To take advantage of the "Mommy, I have to go NOW!" trade.) Although frequently updated, the site's look and navigation style still show its early (in Internet terms) origins, and in a strange way, that low-tech, low-budget appearance seems only fitting for the curiosities inside.
After a brief introduction, Strange Science divides the bulk of its content into three categories, the highlight of which is the Goof Gallery, where the first order of business is a plea for compassion toward the mistaken scientists. After all, anyone who follows the good-for-you/bad-for-you shifts of various common foods will know that even today's researchers are frequently correcting themselves - and many of the creatures in the Gallery aren't really much more outlandish than a giraffe or duck-billed platypus.
That being said, there are some extraordinary extrapolations here, from griffins and unicorns to hydra-headed sea monsters and sabre-tooth hippopotami. Specimens are divided into sub-categories (Hominids, Mammals, Dinosaurs and Dragons, etc.), and accompanied by the date of 'discovery,' the related scientist, a few lines of information, and some imaginative artist's conceptions from the period. (One especially entertaining illustration is titled, "How the Brontosaurus Giganteus Would Look If it Were Alive and Should Try to Peep into the Eleventh Story of the New York Life Building." Apparently, the New York Journal and Advertiser paid its caption writers by the word.)
In addition to the non-existent animal kingdom, there are also some unfortunate conjectures about the earth sciences - alchemy being an obvious example (there were actually anti-alchemy laws enacted in some places for fear of its effect on the economy), but also including such concepts as big rocks giving birth to little rocks. (Sadly, there seem to be no accompanying theories about rock courtship and mating.) Finally, the Goof Gallery shares examples of famous frauds, including the Piltdown Man, P.T. Barnum's "Feejee Mermaid, and 1999's well-publicized 'missing link' between dinosaurs and birds. (Which turned out to be a composite of eighty-eight fossil pieces glued together by a Chinese farmer.)
After the Goof Gallery, Strange Science moves on to a Timeline of important events in paleontology and biology (beginning in 610 B.C. with a surprisingly prescient theory about marine fossils found miles from the sea), and a collection of more than 90 brief Biographies of those "who contributed to what we know today" - from Herodotus and DaVinci to less famous peers such as Mary Anning and Ole Worm. The biographies may seem to be a rather dry exercise compared to creatures like a peeping-Tom Brontosaurus, but some of the personalities described here are as eccentric as anything they discovered.
(If the bios peak your interest, you'll probably have to move on to other sites and sources for greater depth. As one example, while the battle between O.C. Marsh and Edward Cope, a story worthy of its own site, is mentioned in the Biographies, detailed accounts of the infamous Bone Wars will have to be found elsewhere.)
With the early-period Web design, this collection of curiosities may lack bells and whistles but gains the advantage of fast downloads. I do wish that the images had links to full-screen versions, and that there were more details about the individual specimens, but like its real-world counterparts, Strange Science still has enough -if only just enough- to justify a quick rest stop while wandering the information highway.
Strange Science can be found at http://www.strangescience.net/.