Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#412: Don't Bend, Fold, Staple or Mutilate

I remember the stories my grandparents used to tell about the "good old days." Now that I've reached senior citizen status, I have a few I can tell myself. So this week's column is targeted at "the younger generation..." you know, all those kids less than 40 years old. Now listen sonny and girlie to what I'm going to tell you. Back in Chicago I went to high school in the days when we had to walk uphill both ways in the midst of a snowstorm with the temperature hovering at 81 below. Oops, wait... wrong story. After I graduated high school, I packed two huge steamer trunks (yes, real steamer trunks) full of suits, ties and dress shirts (which in the 60s quickly became obsolete!) and shipped them off to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I arrived at my Harvard dorm and discovered I had to carry everything up to the fourth floor... because Grays Hall did not have an elevator. Once settled in, I perused the Harvard Confidential Guide to Courses and chose one that looked very interesting, a freshman seminar on marine biology. I had been interested in the subject since I was a very young child. Little did I know how this class was to affect the rest of my life.

The professor was none other than Dr. H. Barraclough Fell, a noted echinoderm phylogenist from New Zealand. To translate, Barry (as he liked to be called) looked at the evolutionary relationships between starfish, brittlestars, sea urchins and sea cucumbers. Yes, we called them starfish back in the mid 60s rather than "sea stars." Back then we all knew the difference between a starfish and a regular fish, but I guess "modern biology" has not made that distinction for its students. The class was quite interesting, but starting sophomore year I did what many college undergraduates do... move through a series of totally unrelated majors as I sought my identity. I tried history, math, American literature and art but never once considered women's studies (at least not as an official major!). However, by the beginning of junior year I realized that marine biology was "my thing." While looking for classes to enroll in that fall, I noticed Barry was teaching one on invertebrate zoology so I signed up. Over my last two years in college, I took several classes and independent studies with Barry that eventually led to my coming to Catalina.

One of my independent studies involved Barry's research to disprove the then "preposterous" notion of "continental drift." Despite the obvious fit of the continents across the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, Barry didn't believe the North and South American land masses had separated and moved away from those of Europe and Africa. Who was I to doubt my professor? The research involved something today's generation have been fortunate to avoid, the use of mainframe computers and IBM punch cards. Back in that era (1967) there were no PCs (personal computers or political correctness, although it was coming). I had the task of punching all the data cards for this early computerized research project. That meant trudging all the way across campus to the computer room where an IBM mainframe almost the size of my condo sat in an air conditioned room. In the next room I used a special machine designed to translate readable numbers into holes in the computer punch card... technology designed by IBM back in 1928 when my parents were three years old. Oh, by the way, you had to be careful about hanging "chads" on these punch cards since they could foul up your computer run, but at least not the election of a president back in those days!

Late one wintry night I was returning to my dorm from the computer room, and stepped off the curb onto Massachusetts Ave. My shoe hit an ice slick causing me to fall... scattering the deck of punched cards onto the street. Not only did I "bend, fold, staple and mutilate" them, they were soaking wet from the slush. Since it was near midnight and our scheduled computer run was at 9:00 AM the next morning, I had to trudge back and repunch the entire deck. Needless to say, it was rather late when I finished... and I was quite "punchy" myself! I was beginning to question this new tool known as a computer, at least for researchers in cold, wet climates! But the card deck was ready for the computer run, and later that day we had print outs to analyze for the research project. The print outs showed primitive computer "maps" of ancient currents, all drawn with X's and O's. No high resolution graphics in those days.

Dr. Fell's hypothesis was that the Earth's rotational axis had meandered or "wandered" over many hundreds of millions of years. As the axis changed position, the ocean currents would also change... as well as our atmospheric circulation. To try to prove this, we used the computer to analyze "speciation gradients" for various groups of marine life. A speciation gradient forms when related critters (say starfish) move out from a center of origin with the prevailing ocean currents, colonize new areas and evolve due to their isolation. The assumption is that there will be more species of starfish present in their centers of origin (often the tropics) and fewer in the new areas they colonize. If one region had 26 species of starfish and another had 19 way back in the Triassic age of the dinosaurs, Barry speculated that an ancient ocean current flowed from the region of higher number of species to the one of lower diversity. I could see some flaws in that logic even as a neophyte marine biologist, and I discussed them with Barry. As a true, objective scientist, he was always open to discussion and constructive criticism of his ideas. This made him a great teacher in my book. We would often meet at the faculty dining hall where Barry would sit and listen to my thoughts and criticisms, and not be offended that some young undergraduate with a scraggly beard and hippie clothes was questioning his science.

It later became apparent that we were wrong. Continental drift, or plate tectonics as it is now called, was indeed a good theory. I learned that scientists often have to face the truth when their own hypotheses are shown to be wrong. Another good lesson. This project led to a life-long interest in marine biogeography, the study of how ocean critters are distributed around the globe. When I later took a course in evolution from world renowned E. O. Wilson (of island biogeography fame), I found my early calling... as a biogeographer interested in the distribution of marine life on oceanic and continental islands. A job came up at the Catalina Island School for Boys just prior to my graduation in 1969, and I took it sight unseen. When I arrived, I wrote Dr. Fell for suggestions on research projects. He wrote back that since I lived on Catalina where there was ample giant kelp, I should continue my work in the geographic distribution of marine life on islands. I began sampling drifting kelp mats or "rafts" to determine what might be transported on them. Many marine critters have eggs or larvae that can disperse in the currents. For those that didn't, kelp rafting was one excellent dispersal mechanism for marine life to get to our island. That research continued for almost eight years after graduation, ending when Barry's focus shifted to the very early exploration of North America by ancient cultures such as the Norse, Egyptians and Chinese well before the time of that upstart Christopher Columbus.

It was 15 years later than my initial disdain of computers softened. At some point in the early 70s, a high school student of mine (Packy Offield) handed me a device that fit (barely) in the palm of my hand. I asked what it was and he said a "calculator." That little device could only do simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. I could do these things fairly well in my head (having memorized the multiplication tables many years before), but the device's size had me wondering if a computer with all the functions of the huge old IBM mainframe could eventually be packaged in something that small. Within just a few years I purchased a calculator even smaller than Packy's that could be programmed (without punch cards!) to do all the math the mainframe had done a decade earlier. Today I couldn't function without my desktop and laptop computers. I write these columns, process the still images for them, edit my underwater video and produce my DVDs and cable TV show episodes on a system that fits on my desk (with space to spare). I even use it to search the Internet dating sites... but with far less success than my other computerized endeavors! It is good to be able to admit that I was wrong about the future of computers in my life. After all, I rarely am!

© 2010 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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Data on number of species entered on IBM punch cards, ocean currents based on "speciation gradients;"
land masses interpreted from ocean current data, and land masses "fleshed in."

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2010 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia