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Education

Presidential Lizard, Auctioning Science History

by Emily Bones
January 14, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 2

 

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Credit: Courtesy of Nick Longrich and Shutterstock
Striking resemblance: President Obama’s straight teeth were the inspiration for naming Obamadon gracilis.
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Credit: Courtesy of Nick Longrich and Shutterstock
Striking resemblance: President Obama’s straight teeth were the inspiration for naming Obamadon gracilis.

Life as we know it didn’t change on Dec. 21, 2012, despite the Mayan- calendar-inspired prediction that the world would end that day. Creatures on Earth weren’t as fortunate 65.5 million years ago, when the Chicxulub asteroid struck: Scientists estimate that about 75% of all species went extinct in that one collision.

One lizard that was lost in the asteroid’s destructive path has recently been found—and named for President Barack Obama. Belonging to an order that includes lizards and snakes called Squamates, the newly dubbed Obamadon gracilis shares a set of straight teeth with the U.S. commander in chief.

A team from Harvard University and Yale University restudied some collections of fossils dating to before the Chicxulub collision and unveiled O. gracilis in the process (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1211526110).

Their study resulted in the classification of seven unreported lizard species, which were identified by jaw structures. “Teeth and jaws are dense and durable. So they are often all that is left,” says Nicholas R. Longrich, a postdoc at Yale who led the study. “Since different species tend to eat different things, you can use the teeth and jaws to tell them apart.”

When the researchers came across the fossilized teeth and jaw of what is now O. gracilis in a collection at the University of California, Berkeley, they remarked how straight the teeth were, just like Obama’s pearly whites. So the genus Obamadon was born. “It just sort of had a nice sound to it,” Longrich says. “ ‘Romneysaurus’ and ‘Mittraptor’ just don’t sound as good.”

Manuscripts dating to the 1800s seem young when compared with 65 million-year-old fossils. Some of these documents, including pieces generated by well-known scientists, went up for auction on Dec. 18, 2012, and pulled in a pretty penny. The auction was held by California-based Profiles in History, a memorabilia and historical document company.

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Credit: Courtesy of Profiles in History
Hello: Original notes Edison wrote while experimenting with a prototype of the modern-day telephone.
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Credit: Courtesy of Profiles in History
Hello: Original notes Edison wrote while experimenting with a prototype of the modern-day telephone.

Of the 299 items for sale, 40 were classified as “science and medicine” manuscripts. The documents in this category netted $1.2 million, almost 20% of the money brought in by the auction.

The most expensive item in the science and medicine category sold for $240,000. It was a 1939 letter from Leo Szilard to Lewis L. Strauss—both integral figures in nuclear weapons research that led to the development of the atomic bomb. Another item sold was an 1877 document by Thomas Edison. He was working on the “speaking telegraph,” a device that evolved into what we know as the telephone. Edison’s scribbles sold for $20,000.

Profiles in History is best known for collecting Hollywood memorabilia. But its founder and president, Joseph M. Maddalena, has been working for 30 years with a private collector whose goal was “to own the most important manuscript collection” from great thinkers, Maddalena says.

For three decades, Maddalena helped build his anonymous client’s library to more than 4,000 items. “He wanted letters that showed day-to-day life: the trials and tribulations of great thinkers, whether they were failures or accomplishments,” Maddalena notes.

This is the first of many auctions to come. The collector’s library will be sold in events similar to the one held in December. Part two is scheduled for sometime in May. Newscripts readers looking for documents by their favorite scientist would be wise to start saving their pennies now.

Emily Bones wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

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