Fossil Prep Mistakes, 1840s Electric Cars, Tip of Your Tongue

Learn how accurate fossil preparators must be; why electric cars are an old concept; and words on the tip of your tongue.

Additional information about fossil preparators and other resources from Caitlyn Wylie:

Electric cars are the future, but they are also the distant past by Cameron Duke

Word on the tip of your tongue by Ashley Hamer (Listener question from Mariana in Lisbon, Portugal)

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TRANSCRIPT

Cody Gough: Hi, you’re about to get smarter in just a few minutes with Curiosity Daily, from Curiosity.com. I’m Cody Gough.

Ashley Hamer: And I’m Ashley Hamer. Today, you’ll learn about how accurate fossil preparators have to be when they’re dusting off dinosaur bones, with help from author Caitlyn Wylie. You’ll also learn why electric cars are just as much part of the future as they are part of the past. And we’ll answer a listener question about how you can know something’s on the tip of your tongue, even when you don’t know what that thing is.

Cody Gough: Let’s satisfy some curiosity.

Ashley Hamer: Yesterday, Caitlyn Wylie told us about how painstaking and difficult it is to prepare a dinosaur fossil for research. Today, she’s going to tell us what could happen if that process goes wrong.

Caitlin Wylie is Assistant Professor of Science, Technology and Society at the University of Virginia, and author of the new book, Preparing Dinosaurs: The Work Behind the Scenes. And we asked her how often do preparators accidentally damage these fossils?

Caitlyn Wylie: The professionals would say, you do not damage the bone.

Cody Gough: Wow.

Caitlyn Wylie: Ever.

Cody Gough: Wow.

Caitlyn Wylie: And they don’t. Like, they are true, you know, artists. People who are less good, which is most of us, and me, you know, as a student preparator, yeah, you scratch the bone or you like take little divots out by mistake, and then you try to glue them back in place. And it looks like a mess.

There’s a whole spectrum of skills. And a lot of fossil preparation is done by volunteers in museums or in universities. And so they’re usually given the kinds of bones where a dent or two, a chip or two won’t really matter. So like ribs are the classic example, that they’re not that important scientifically.

Like we just, we already know a lot about ribs. It’s not a big deal if they’re a little bit dented and they’re pretty easy, like, you know what a rib looks like and you can expect where it’s going to be, even when you can’t see it in the rock.

Cody Gough: Yeah.

Caitlyn Wylie: As opposed to like a skull, which is very fragile and has lots of parts to it. And unexpected things can happen. Like part of the skull can be smashed and you don’t know that. And then you, you tunnel through the, you know, with your little drill and you’ve just broken the eye socket. So like the more complex and more scientifically important fossils are certainly left to the professionals. Like, the people at the top of their game who are doing the Michelangelo-like preparation.

There was a story that happened during my fieldwork that I loved, and it was, uh, a volunteer preparator was working in a museum. And he said to the staff preparator, like, what is this bone that I’m working on?

Um, cause it’s kind of irrelevant to him, right. For him, he’s, his job is to distinguish the rock from the fossil. And so the staff preparator said the scientists don’t really know yet. They’re still kind of arguing about it. They think it’s Eolambia, which is a genus of duck-billed dinosaurs. And then a scientist who happened to be in the lab and was, you know,listening in said, you know, we don’t really know, it’s it’s still up in the air. It could be Eolambia, it could be these other things. And so the, the volunteer said, you mean one little slip of my drill and it’ll be Neolambia?

Cody Gough: I love that!

Caitlyn Wylie: I just thought that was so gorgeous. Like, doesn’t that just encapsulate the power that fossil preparators have? Even though nobody talks about them. They’re not published. Right? Like, and yet, they hold the key to us understanding prehistoric life. They can decide Neolambia, right, an invented species just by making a mistake, basically.

Ashley Hamer: Caitlyn told us that her theory for why fossil preparators are left so removed from the science is that it maintains objectivity. See, preparators don’t have an incentive for the bone to be any particular species. So they’ll prepare the fossil the way it should be prepared and leave it up to the scientists to examine. It makes sense to me! Again, that was Caitlyn Wylie, Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia and author of the new completely free open access.

This book, preparing dinosaurs, the work behind the scenes. You can find a link to the book in the show notes. Just in time for the weekend.

Cody Gough: Every year, more and more electric cars come on the market as we slowly move away from fossil fuels. Now, it’s easy to think of these shiny new vehicles as cutting edge technological innovations, but actually electric cars aren’t new. In fact, they’re older than gas powered cars. Seriously.

Get this. The first electric car was built in the 40s. And I don’t mean the 1940s. I mean the 1840s. As you might imagine, its creation was an impressive technological feat. I mean, the thing could travel a full mile and a half or 2.4 kilometers before the battery needed to be replaced.

That was a pretty powerful proof of concept, but it was more of a parlor trick than practical transportation. And it stayed that way for about 20 years. When the rechargeable battery came along in 1859, electric cars became cool again. They hit the mainstream in the 1890s when the first commercially successful electric car went to market. It was a taxi cab called the Electrobat, which is a name that’s probably still fair game if you wanted to start a renewable Batmobile ride share company.

The Electrobat topped out at 25 miles per hour, which doesn’t sound that impressive. But that’s not to say electric cars were sluggish in general. At the time, other electric cars were busy setting land speed records. The first car to break the 100 kilometer per hour speed barrier was a torpedo shaped electric car made in Paris. At the turn of the century, electric cars were common in cities and largely preferred for being quieter and cleaner than their fossil fuel burning counterparts. But by the 1920s, electric cars began to disappear. And that was for a variety of reasons.

One was the fact that they could only drive a few dozen miles before they needed to be recharged. And recharging took hours. By comparison, today, a Tesla can run for at least 250 miles before it needs to be recharged. Another reason was cost. Henry Ford’s assembly lines churned out gas powered cars for roughly half the price of an electric car.

And as gas powered cars became more common, electric cars fell into obscurity. As electric cars become more common again, remember that this is not uncharted territory. Cars today are just returning to their battery powered roots.

Ashley Hamer: We got a listener question from Mariana in Lisbon, Portugal, who asks, how does your brain know that you know something without being able to remember it at the time? For example, knowing a word that could be used perfectly in context, but not being able to remember the word.

Great question, Mariana. This all comes down to a system known as the mental lexicon. The mental lexicon is basically where words live in your brain. But if you’re imagining a mental dictionary complete with definitions, spelling, and pronunciation, all in one place, think again, instead, all those words are stored in four different ways.

One is by how they sound, or their phonological details. Another is by how they look on the page, or their morphological details. Another is by what they mean, or their semantic elements. And another is what role they play in grammar, or their syntactic details.

So, for example, let’s think about the word “see.” Well, it sounds like several other words, including S E A and the letter C. So you need more than just the sound to know what it means. If you saw it written down, you’d know that it was spelled S E E, and those other options would be off the table. Then you’d realize that its definition refers to vision or sight, and you’d know that it was a verb or an action word.

But what about if you had to come up with a word yourself? Let’s make that word a little more complicated. Let’s try to think of the word percieve. You might start out knowing that you want a verb that means something like observe or take in, but that’s where your train of thought comes to a stop. You’ve got the meaning and which part of speech it is. In other words, you know its semantic and syntactic details, but nothing else. That’s how your brain can know you know something without actually being able to come up with it.

So how do you retrieve the rest of the word? More importantly, how do you keep yourself from forgetting next time? Well, luckily science has some clues.

First of all, research suggests that when a word lands on the tip of your tongue once, it’s likely to do it again later. To fix that, do your best to actually find the word. Studies suggest that if you can correct yourself, you’re less likely to forget the word next time. The key word is yourself. Having other people tell you the word won’t help you.

Thanks for your question. Mariana! If you have a question, send it in to curiosity at discovery dot com or leave us a voicemail at 3 1 2 5 9 6 5 2 0 8.

Cody Gough: Ashley. Let’s do a recap, but first do a preview of the stuff we’ll learn next week on Curiosity Daily. Let’s do it all.

Ashley Hamer: All right. Yeah. We’ll talk about what you will learn and then we’ll talk about what you did learn and then we’ll probably make some jokes. It’ll be great.

Cody Gough: Can’t wait.

Ashley Hamer: So next week, you’ll learn about why trusting science makes you more likely to share false science, how researchers plan to map the ocean floor by 2030, whether you should kill spiders inside your home, why it took more than 70 years to guarantee eight hour work days in the U S, and more.

Okay. So now let’s recap what we learned today.

Cody Gough: Well we learned thatt fossil preparators separate bone from rock, and they say you do not damage the bone. They really strive for a hundred percent accuracy. As one preparator said, a little chip could turn the bone of an Eolambia into the bone of a Neolambia. So, you know, because the whole species will have been invented thanks to one little mistake. Fossil preparators may not be published scientists, but they sure are important.

And Caitlyn mentioned Michelangelo-like preparation. That’s ’cause in our conversation, I actually brought this up. Michelangelo, the artist, once said something about how every block of stone has a statue inside it. And it’s the task of the sculptor to discover it. And Caitlin told us, she’s heard a lot of fossil preparators use this analogy. It’s kind of funny, cause it’s literal in this particular case, like there is literally a sculpture, a statue in it. It’s the fossil and it is actually the preparator’s job to chip it away. So Michelangelo, I guess, would have been a pretty good preparator.

Yeah, probably. I mean, she did mention that a lot of artists do this work. So if you’re an artist or a sculptor, maybe this is a field that you want to go into.

What if like, Picasso had been a preparator and been like, really lazy. We’d have some really weird looking dinosaurs.

Ashley Hamer: Oh, I see what you’re saying. Like, like a melted dinosaur, like, like yeah. Yeah, that’d be, boy, we’d have a whole different view of the past.

And we learned that the first electric car came out way back in the 1840s. It could only go a mile and a half before its battery needed to be replaced. But when rechargeable batteries came out, 20 years later, electric cars really started picking up speed.

I mean, literally. One of them broke the land speed record, so awesome. But by the 1920s, they began to lose to their gas powered counterparts, partly because of their limited range, and partly because, well, gas guzzlers were cheaper, but today electric cars last longer charge faster and they’re ready for a rematch.

Cody Gough: Well, we also learned that when you have a word on the tip of your tongue and you just can’t think of it, it’s probably because of a disconnect in your mental lexicon. That’s the system that encodes a word’s sound, appearance, meaning, and syntax. So like, a lot of the time we come up with a word’s meaning and syntax first, and then our brains retrieve their sound in spelling.

So if your brain has trouble retrieving a word one time, it’ll probably happen again, which means that the solution is to do your best, to actually retrieve the word yourself without asking for help. And that way you can put a stop to it for good. Although, Ashley didn’t we cover a study where we talked about, if you have a word stuck on the tip of your tongue, the best thing to do is to look it up right away?

Ashley Hamer: Yeah. So the study that we did that on had further studies from those researchers since then. So that original study said, basically, its big discovery was, if you have a word on the tip of your tongue once it’ll happen again. And that was kind of its thing. So they were saying, basically, their advice there was to not let that state exist for too long.

Like, don’t stay in that state. And it might even be a good idea to just move on and do something else if you don’t think you can retrieve it right away. But they’ve done more studies since then and they found different ways of solving this tot, tip of the tongue state, as they call it, and they found that having the person find the answer in whatever way they do it is the best way to solve this. And giving them the answer won’t solve it. One way that might solve it, though, if someone else wants to help is for them to tell you the first letter, or tell you some letter in it. They, they did that with study participants and that actually seemed to help because then that person can do the mental gymnastics of actually finding the word themselves. They just have one clue.

Cody Gough: Yeah. But who’s ever going to do that. Like, if I can think of a word and I started describing it to my wife and I’m like, oh, what is it? It’s a, it’s kind of like this. She’s not going to be like, well, it starts with a P, because like, she’d have to, first of all, know that that’s the word I’m looking for.

And second of all, like, it’ll be more fun for her if she’s just like, kind of blurts out the word and then I’m like, yeah, that’s it. Cause that’s an instant kind of like, positive response. So, uh, so,

Ashley Hamer: So the, the solution there is to not ask your wife at all. Like you should just, you should just do it

yourself.

Cody Gough: I’m not gonna do that, she’s too smart! She knows all the answers. Why would I not do that? Come on. That would be like, not asking you for some piece of knowledge that I forgot, which I do like everyday on Slack. No, it’s not going to happen.

Ashley Hamer: Yeah, fair. I mean, I, I do the same thing. And also sometimes I think I, like, I feel like every time I forget a word, I always think I know the letter it starts with and I’m always wrong. So it like, doesn’t help me.

Cody Gough: Right. Wait, so what did we decide? We decided to look it up or ask somebody to give you that.

Ashley Hamer: Yes, those are the things you should do.

Cody Gough: All right. Cool.

Ashley Hamer: I’m a fan of the thesaurus. You just, you know, go to thesaurus dot com, put in the word you think it means. And hopefully the word will be there.

Cody Gough: Yeah, the Saurus am I right?

Ashley Hamer: That’s right.

Cody Gough: I wonder what the Saurus’s fossils look like.

Ashley Hamer: Probably look similar, but not quite exactly the same as other fossils.

Cody Gough: Ah, there you go.

Ashley Hamer: The writer for today’s electric car story was Cameron Duke.

Cody Gough: Our managing editor is Ashley Hamer, who was also a writer and audio editor on today’s episode.

Ashley Hamer: Our producer and lead audio editor is Cody Gough.

Cody Gough: Have a great weekend. Go read Caitlyn Wylie’s free book about dinosaur fossil preparators, because it’s really good. Then join us again Monday to learn something new in just a few minutes.

Ashley Hamer: And until then, stay curious!