David Raup, RIP
July 16, 2015, 5:15 pm
Filed under: By, Eating the Sun | Excerpts, etc, with or from EtS

The great palaeontologist Dave Raup has died: here’s the NYT obit:

An audacious theorist widely viewed as among the most singular thinkers in his field — Stephen Jay Gould once referred to him as “the world’s most brilliant paleontologist” — he made his mark in the computer laboratory and in published works rather than in the literal dust of history.

He never dug up a dinosaur and was the first president of the Paleontological Society, an international professional association founded more than a century ago, never to have formally described a new species in the scientific literature. His ideas, however, helped transform the study of the history of life on earth.

I met him pretty early on in my career, and found him fascinating and generous with his time. He’s in part responsible for my subsequent fascination with asteroid impacts. There’s an account of my first encounter with him in Eating the Sun: I’ll paste it below.

But first a little detail that I found fascinating. To me in the 1980s, Raup was immensely forward looking, breaking the bounds of what palaeontology could be. But he was also, in his time, stubbornly resistant to change. I remember him telling me that he rejected plate tectonics well into the 1970s, shocking students by showing them the famous Bullard Fit — a recreation of the Earth without the Atlantic, showing how well Africa and South America fit together — and then showing them a fit of his own devising that looked just as good — but had Africa upside down.

I don’t know the details of his dubiousness about  plate tectonics; I wish I did. They would have been highly unusual, I think, for a palaeontologist; as Naomi Oreskes’ brilliant “The Rejection of Continental Drift” points out, palaeontologists were well disposed towards believing in continental drift pre plate tectonics. The fact that, as had been the case with Kelvin and the age of the Earth, the people looking at fossils had been right and the physicists (whose arguments weighed most heavily in the pre-plate-tectonic rejection of continental drift) had been wrong has since then been one that palaeontologists have been happy to crow about whenever they are accused of being “mere stamp collectors”.

But while not understanding its basis, the very fact of Raup’s doubt in the matter seems to me to speak well of him. He was not just sceptical about the status quo. He was sceptical about the most successful overthrowing of a status quo in the history of his science. If he had just been someone who enjoyed seeing orthodoxy stood on its head he would have embraced plate tectonics straight away; coming of scientific age, as he did, in the 1960s, if he had been a mere contrarian, or a young man in a hurry, nothing would have been more natural than to have joined the storming of the barricades. But he was somehow unconvinced. And so he lined up with the conservatives and refuseniks.

More simply: he could be right big time; he could be wrong big time.

Anyway, my condolences to his wife, his colleagues, and his pupils. Continue below the break for the extract from Eating the Sun.

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