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  • (In which the author discovers there’s sometimes madness to the scientific method…)

    When I went to Penn State in the 60s, one of the most popular classes was Geological Science 101. The professor was legendary for his brilliant, witty lectures. It was also, I, an indifferent science student at best, was to discover to my delight, an easy A. Emboldened by my success in the introductory course, I signed up for Geological Science 201, only to learn quickly that this was a very different kettle of prehistoric fish. They expected you to work, get your hands dirty and…find things.

    We were on a field trip to the Nittany Mountains. It was an unseasonably hot spring day and the perspiration ran down in rivulets as we marched uphill. Our graduate assistant leader, a cheerful sadist whose name I won’t reveal, called a halt seconds before we intended to mutiny and toss him off a cliff. He allowed us a quick but merciful sip from our canteens and ordered us to spread out and search the hillside for fossils. He helpfully told us what kinds we could expect to find.

    My grades in the class were not good. I eagerly cleared away dirt and pebbles hoping to find something earthshaking, a genuine game changer, but the early results were far from promising. A fern leaf. Boring. A tiny seashell. Uh-huh. And so it went until I unearthed a small miracle. At first I thought it was a trilobite, but on a closer inspection I detected important differences. This wasn’t a marine creature but some sort of insect. I took my fossil to the graduate assistant and handed it to him.

    “What do you think of this?”

    The man turned deathly pale, but then his eyes narrowed. He considered me a devilish trickster and this could well be one of my infernal pranks. “Where did you find this?” he demanded. I showed him the patch of hillside I’d cleared away. His face once again became paper-white. “No,” he muttered under his breath. “It can’t be!”

    He motioned me to follow him away from my classmates.

    “You’re telling me the absolute truth?”

    I nodded.

    A look of indecision passed over my interrogator’s face, but his expression quickly became one of grim determination.

    “What kind of grades are you getting in the class?”

    “A low C.”

    “How would you like a solid B, regardless of how you do in the final?”

    “What do I have to do for it?”

    “Give me the fossil.”

    I shrugged and handed it to him. He wheeled about and with all his might threw it off the mountain. Whatever had caused him such anguish was now in a valley far, far below. “Let’s join the others. Oh, and here’s my spare canteen. Have a nice drink of water.”

    That was how I became a co-conspirator to suppress the truth about the fossil record of the Nittany Mountains. I still feel occasional pangs of guilt, the fossil isn’t talking and the graduate assistant is retired. I got a B in the course and he saved his career. Our secret has been safe for 46 years. And now, because I trust you, you know it, too.

    (Image: trilobite fossils from Triassica website)
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