Posted by: COSI | July 18, 2011

Death of the Dinos!

dino skeletonOne of the great opportunities I believe exists for science centers is to help people understand the process of science.  The recent finding of a new specimen and its role in the continued discussion about the primary driver for their wholesale extinction is another opportunity.

Did dinosaurs go out with a bang due to an asteroid hit to the earth (something to put all of us personally on edge—if it happened once it can happen again—just a matter of probability), or was there another storyline to their extinction?

http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/07/15/gone-in-a-flash-new-fossil-may-prove-an-asteroid-wiped-out-the-dinosaurs/

If you go to this article you not only will find some fascinating new information about dinosaurs but also how our scientific understanding develops over time and through debate.

It’s been enlightening and engaging to watch our granddaughter act just like a scientist—having a deep drive to take in the world around her, testing it with data (think of the age of a baby when they shove everything into their mouth), clearly having some hypothesis and testing them actively as a child gets older, more mobile, and verbal (sometimes to the consternation of parents).  Our granddaughter is clearly fascinated with the world around her and working constantly to make sense of it.  That is essentially what scientists do.

Someone gets an idea from some evidence they come across and they try to make sense of it.  As with a child, there is often lots of information missing, but through individual brilliance (as was the case with Einstein who did not have evidence to work from, just the incredibly clever thought games he developed about time, light, and space) or reasoned conjecture from a small initial body of evidence someone will put forth an idea of an explanation.  If it is dramatically different from current conventional thought it will rightfully be challenged.

I remember well when the hypothesis (the correct term, not theory which is grossly misused in the media and societal discussions and disagreements) first came forth that an asteroid hit took out the dinos.  There was a small amount of evidence that the scientists putting forth the idea were working from.

Over the years, more evidence has been found and interpreted as supporting the idea so it’s moved from a “crazy conjecture” to a well grounded concept.  However, as you can read in the link, there are still missing pieces that some can argue leave the concept incomplete in explaining all that happened.  This new dino bone found, and importantly where it was found, is another piece of evidence in favor of the idea of an asteroid hit being the primary death blow to the dinosaur era of dominance.

Something really has to pass a test of significant evidence, predictability, and testability to move to the category of theory (or at least in the classic definition prevalent during my science training).  (And this is also why when something is truly has the body of evidence behind it, it is irrational to dismiss it as “just a theory” as I too often hear from people.)

This new discovery, as the latest supportive data to be added, moves us more closely in the direction of confidence in the idea that an asteroid was the “blunt force instrument” delivering the death blow to dinos.  But you can see how the debate can continue as finding missing pieces and their interpretation continues on.

This is the strength of science and the process, and how something like dinosaurs from millions of years ago can still excite the public and drive scientific attention—and why the Dinosaur exhibition/experience at COSI is so captivating.

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