I have to admit I felt a bit foolish this evening. I went to see a lecture by Brian Richmond about hominid bipedalism, although the name didn’t register with me. So I’m sitting there in front, watching him talk about Orrorin and how there haven’t been any good studies about it, all the while thinking “How could he have missed that Science paper about the femur of Orrorin being most morphologically similar to those of australopithecines?” My own unfamiliarity with “who’s who” in anthropology made me feel a bit sheepish when I realized that I was looking at the guy who did that study, d’oh!

I haven’t done much better in terms of paleontology. When the news of dromeosaur tracks broke I wrote a piece about the discovery. I didn’t realize that Jerry Harris, a frequent visitor of this blog, was one of the authors of the paper! Sometimes I think my relative ignorance is good as I am often more careful with what’s being said, but then again recognizing the author (and knowing their work) sometimes allows me to prise apart what they’re trying to get at or how the present research fits in to their other work.

Indeed, I’m still a little star-struck when I talk to people who are doing scientific research and publishing their findings in journals. I know that they are “real people,” too, but I still get a little nervous when I talk to a professional paleontologist or have a researcher comment on my review of their work. When I slip up and don’t recognize them, then things aren’t so bad, but I have to admit still feeling a bit “small” next to working scientists.


  1. #1 Greg Laden
    April 23, 2008

    Oh, Oh, I have the worst story in the world to tell you! (Thankfully it was not me)

    A fairly famous person who studies isotopes, whom I shall not name publically, came back from the field after an extended period during which he was actually quite ill. He had been looking at some isotope data that had been published in the last few years, and he came to Harvard (passing through) and gave a talk in our lab (this was with Ofer Bar Yosef in charge at the time, a year or so after Glynn Isaac’s death).

    He talked about this new concept called the “younger dryas” and how the younger dryas may have been an important event in human prehistory, bla bla bla.

    Now, what you have to understand is that the importance of the younger dryas had been emerging for the previous few years. A major conference had happened just downstairs from where this little meeting was happening about two years earlier. Ofer had just published a paper on the Y.D. and the origins of agriculture. We grad students knew every single word and data point of every single published paper on the topic.

    Indeed, it was a moment in time that I just love with respect to a particular research finding: Dozens of people around the world working on it, fewer than 30 or so published papers, about the same number of not yet published papers being circulated. With a bit of work it was possible to know everything everyone else knew, yet also know that as a whole nobody knows the whole story yet. And our lab was in some ways in the middle of the whole thing. The younger dryas consumed the interest and time of almost everybody in the room.

    And there was this guy who had just found out about it, had read two papers on it (the wrong two) and had shown up in one of the epicenters of research on the topic to tell us about it because he thought we would find it interesting.

    This was the first time I ever so Ofer NOT chew up and spit out someone he found lacking or disagreable in a presentation. He just walked away. So did the rest of us.

    So, Brian, it could be worse.

  2. #2 Anne-Marie
    April 24, 2008

    The first time I got a comment from an author of a paper I’d reviewed it made my stomach twist a little too, even though it was a positive one. One of my favorite things about meetings is matching faces to names of high-profile researchers, I’m sure they get surprise reactions like yours a lot!

  3. #3 Zach Miller
    April 24, 2008

    Once and awhile a famous face will comment on my humble blog or email me. Yeah, they’re just people too, but they’re people whose papers I read and learn from. :-)

  4. #4 Mo Hassan
    April 24, 2008

    I’m the same, I do that all the time! I never seem to click that the guy giving the lecture is the one who wrote the paper or book I had a look at the other day and admired. It’s the putting names to faces that’s a problem, although we tend to have a knack for it when it comes to the organisms we study, doesn’t work for people though!

    I know what you mean about getting starstruck, it’s just that feeling that you’re gonna muck up and say something stupid in front of them when you just want to be your normal intelligent self, but can’t say anything other than your name.

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