Category Archives: EuroTrip09

Behold the Mammoth

As you may remember, a beautiful mammoth fossil was discovered in Serbia a couple of months ago. I promised I’d try to go and see it myself on my recent trip to Belgrade. And I did get to see it. But the story is more fun than just that…. 😉
First, I tried to get in touch with Dr.Miomir Korać, the Director of the Archaeological park Viminacium to ask for permission to photograph the fossil as well as to interview him. After a couple of e-mail addresses bounced, I got what I think is the correct address…but got no response.
Once I got to Belgrade, I asked my contacts there about this and, as is usually the process there, a friend of a friend of a friend was willing to take me to the site. They also tried to contact Korać, as well as their own bosses, but nobody returned their calls. It is vacation time in Serbia right now, and people are not easily reachable (even by cell phones, not to mention the Web – Serbia has a distressingly low rate of Internet use for Europe). So, what to do? They decided to take me there anyway, and deal with the bosses later. Thus, I will not use their names or photos here (in case they get in trouble) and I told them that I am still interested in talking to and interviewing both Korać and their bosses if they want to contact me.
Why all this worry about bypassing the protocol? Because the fossil is in the middle of a huge open-pit coal mine Drmno (you see, there are maps and satellite images all over the Web), near Kostolac, a mine that provides something like 1/8th of electrical power of Serbia and is thus of strategic importance. For all they knew, I could have been an American spy! But fortunately they trusted the friends of friends of friends that I was not.
So, last Thursday, I got up early and went to the bus station. I took a bus to Pozarevac, a trip I took a million times as a kid. But this time, it was different. The bus was new and modern and clean and comfortable and smelled good. The music was discrete and not the worst of the worst of the newly-composed “folk”. The bus also started the trip exactly on time (to the second!) and arrived exactly on time. Not whenever the bus driver felt inspired to drive as it used to be once upon a time. Capitalism, baby!
It took a couple of hours in Pozarevac until our car that was to take us to Drmno arrived. So we sat in a cafe and got to know each other….over four huge shots of home-made slivovitz! I did not even have breakfast yet! I tried to dilute it by having a couple of big Turkish coffees, a couple of Cokes, some mineral water and a couple of handfuls of peanuts, but still, it was a tough and heroic deed.
Instead of going to Viminacium or even the town of Kostolac, we went straight to the mine (where we had yet another shot of brandy). The office building is nice, large and clean – and powered (yes, right next to all that coal) by a large battery of solar panels. The titles on all the office doors we passed indicated to me that quite a lot of science (mainly geology, but also stuff like vibrations, etc.) is going on there.
Then we got in a jeep and went into the mine itself. I took a lot of pictures of the mine – it is huge and it looks very tidy (I’ve seen a bigger one, Kolubara, when I was a kid, and remember it being, in my childish eyes, quite a mess). As such pictures may compromise (at least in some eyes) the national security and since they are not too related to the fossil, I will not post them here. But here is one, taken from a considerable distance (as much as my little camera could zoom in), showing just a small segment of one side of the open pit – the arrow points to the enclosure where the mammoth is:

Drmno kop.jpg

As you can see, there are at least 50 meters of the mine ‘wall’ hanging right above it – something that mine engineers are now trying to figure out how to secure against sliding, as the mammoth will stay in the spot and be seen by tourists.
The fossil was discovered in a part of the mine that is not in use any more – the coal extracted now is deeper down in the pit. It was found in a layer of yellow sand by a bulldozer driver for a local road-paving company that has a contract with the mine to come in and take away, for free, the sand and gravel they need for road construction. He was happily bulldozing the gravel when he heard a ‘clang’ noise at the blade. He immediatelly stopped the machine, went down to see and, upon seeing a small tip of something that looked like a bone, decided to call the mine bosses who, in turn, called the people from the Archaeological park Viminacium. The archaeological treasure of the area is a source of everyone’s pride there, of course.
It turned out that this is an amazingly well-preserved and almost completely articulated fossil of Mammuthus meridionalis, the Southern Mammoth that is thought to have migrated from North Africa to Southern Europe around 2 million years ago and is probably the ancestral species of all the other, younger species of mammoths found in the Northern hemisphere. The Southern Mammoth had much shorter and finer hair than the later Woolly Mammoth and probably went extinct when the next Ice Age appeared in Europe.
Being a much older species, the Southern Mammoth has not left as many or as complete fossils as the Woolly Mammoth either. Several have been found around Europe (Spain, Bulgaria, Sweden) and one has been mounted and is on display at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris. Thus the Serbian fossil, with its exquisite level of preservation, will be carefully studied by Serbian and international teams of scientists for years to come.


This fossil, found at the depth of 27 meters, was about 4m high, 6m long and weighed about 10 tons. It is a female and was named ‘Vicky’. There has been probably no big tectonic activity in the area for about 1 million years – how old this one is estimated to be (the more precise measures of age will be performed soon) – as earthquakes would, over time, have disassembled a fossil embedded in sand.
The fact that the fossil is in sand is on one hand a great gift – cleaning up is easy and fast – but on the other hand it is a big headache as well – how do you move it!? If it was embedded in rock, they could cut the entire slab out and move it to a museum for cleaning and restoration. This is a major mine, close to major roads – there is plenty of heavy machinery, people who can competently use it, and engineers who can figure out how to do it. This is not like finding a dinosaur in the middle of nowhere – technology is at hand and can be used on the spot. But this fossil is not embedded in rock – it is in sand. So what can one do?


First, they could disarticulate the skeleton, take each separate bone to a museum and rearticulate it there. That would take a lot of people, a lot of effort and a lot of time – and something would be lost in the process: the exact position and location of the fossil in the place where it was buried. Another way would be to freeze the sand around it, lift the whole slab and take it to a museum where the sand would thaw. This they think is too risky – the freezing and thawing may damage the fossil.

ulaz u sator.jpg

So, the mine and the museum struck a compromise. The fossil will stay in place. The mine will secure the 50 meters of overhanging soil above the fossil and build two roads: one for the tourists who come to see Vicky, the other for the mine to use for driving around its heavy machinery into the pit. The museum will finish the cleaning and the analysis of the fossil and build an enclosure that will protect the fossil and accommodate the visitors (I am assuming that a museum shop will be built to bring in some revenue).
If any of my palaeontologist readers have better ideas for either preservation or moving, leave them in the comments or contact me. They are all ears.

ulaz u sator2.jpg

Right now the fossil is protected from immediate weather and light by a small canvas tent, which also means that I was not able to take pictures from a distance greater than a couple of feet. I had to crouch to get inside and could only take close-shot photos. I also could not find a good object to include in some shots as a size reference. But I took a lot of pictures from many angles and I hope you can see how wonderfully intact and well-articulated the fossil is. The rest of the pictures are under the fold, followed by a YouTube video (not shot by me) where you can see the fossil as it looked when it was first shown to the media:

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How Facebook got us together

A year ago, almost none of my old school friends were on Facebook. Today, many are.
Facebook statistics show that this past year has seen a huge influx of people, globally, of roughly my age who are not techies or bloggers, just normal people. Over the past 5-6 years, Facebook has evolved and changed quite a lot. Some of the best and most liked functionalities on Facebook right now are blatant copies of the best aspects of FriendFeed and Twitter and Flickr and YouTube and Dopplr and LinkedIn and other services (some of which are now already dead).
As us oldsters are joining in great numbers, there is a clash of generations as we use Facebook differently than the kids do and they feel like we are encroaching on their territory (thus learning how to use the privacy settings is the key).
Unless Google Wave kills off all the competition, Facebook will remain the main and the biggest central place for people of all generations to find each other, have fun, or do business. Just like it did for college and high school kids five years ago, and for the techies and bloggers about a year later, Facebook is now introducing everyone to the wonders of Web 2.0.
If you are one of my 1,161 friends on Facebook (yes, I use it for PR and not just for finding old friends), you have noticed I friended a lot of people with Serbian-sounding names over the past year or so. Yup, those are old friends from school: preschool, elementary/middle school, high school and vet school. And by finding each other on Facebook, and through using Facebook as a tool, we organized, for the first time in many years, to meet in person in Belgrade last week.
You may have also seen me tagged in a bunch of pictures from those reunions – check out the photo sets here, here, here, here and here (that’s uploaded so far – there may be more soon).
Was it an anniversary of graduation? No. Did we meet as a single coherent class of people sharing the same classroom? No. I went to three such parties on three consecutive nights in Belgrade last week.
One meetup was just a few of us from the last two years of high school (nobody brought the camera, alas).
The second meetup was organized over just a few days – it started on Facebook as I told some friends I’d be in Belgrade and would like to meet. They then contacted some others via phone or personal contact in physical space, we chose the venue (the ancient restaurant “Manjez” – yes, the name comes from ‘manege’ as that was the place where King’s horses were stabled and trained a century ago) and whoever could show up showed up. Eighteen of us got together:
reunion at Manjez.jpg
One of them I met last year when I was in Belgrade. Others I have not seen in 20 or 25 or even 32 years. Only two I had to ask for the name. Some I recognized by the walk as they approached the restaurant. Others did not change in their faces at all. Others I recognized once they started talking. Most of us were in the same class in elementary school (1-4th grade), with some I was also in the same school later, including high school, and with one I was even in the same preschool.
Everyone remembered anecdotes from those old days, many brought photographs, year-books and class pictures. We wondered about people nobody’s heard from in years (one of them just e-mailed me two days ago completely out of the blue: he just googled my name). Two of our friends, I heard, died in the meantime (one of them as a conscript in the war between Serbia and Croatia in the early 1990s). Then we walked over to the old high school yard, where I saw that my legend still lives on with the new generations, as you can see for yourself from the graffiti:
Bora grafiti dvoriste.jpg
The third party was a more elaborate affair. While the people found each other on Facebook and started planning there, most of the preparation happened over e-mail over several months. Several people came from abroad. We reserved an entire restaurant for our party, hired a DJ to play the 1980’s Yugoslav music (which was so amazingly experimental and creative that nobody at the time noticed the syrupy, commercialized Western music by the likes of Michael Jackson) and managed to collect 55 of us, plus three of the teachers:
reunion at Lava Bar.jpg
The central point for most of us was 8th grade – the time when the two shifts first met during a field trip (let me explain: half the kids went to school 8am-1:15pm and the other half 2pm-7:15pm, then reverse each week. I was B-shift, with English being 1st and French 2nd foreign language. A-shift had French as 1st – even had some other classes taught in French – and English as 2nd. Most of the people at this party were from the A shift, but we partied and made friends and even dated between shifts in 8th grade so much, it did not matter any more).
But I also knew some of them from before and after. It is also a collection of kids from old Belgrade families. Many of our parents knew each other before we were even born. We all got haircuts from a mother of one of our friends. Another friend’s mother was all of ours pediatrician. If we needed an otorhynolaryngologist, we went to one of our friend’s father. The ties are multigenerational.
While it was fun to meet all of them, including the teachers (and yes, 8th grade crushes), I was most glad to see my best friend from those old days. We spent a lot of time together over the years, visiting each other (our fathers were also friends), going ice skating and horseback riding together, studying math for competitions, partying and just generally growing up together for about eight years of elementary/middle school (1-8th grade). But we have not heard from each other in about 25 years or so. So we spent a lot of time last Saturday night catching up with each other. After getting a degree in architecture, he built and ran a chain of diving schools on the Adriatic coast. As the wars made it impossible to run schools in Croatia while living in Serbia, he shut them down and opened a cafe in the center of Belgrade. He seems to be very happy! After the restaurant kicked all 55 of us out at 2am, we got in several cars and went to his cafe to continue partying and drinking. I got home at 4am, just a few hours before my flight home. But it was worth it. I am still excited and have this warmth in my heart from meeting all those old friends. And it would not have happened if it wasn’t for Facebook.

Open Access in Belgrade

As you know, I gave two lectures here in Belgrade. The first one, at the University Library on Monday, and the second one at the Oncology Institute of the School of Medicine at the University of Belgrade. As the two audiences were different (mainly librarians/infoscientists at the first, mainly professors/students of medicine at the second) I geared the two talks differently.
You can listen to the audio of the entire thing (the second talk) here, see some pictures (from both talks) here and read (in Serbian) a blog post here, written by incredible Ana Ivkovic who organized my entire Belgrade “tour” this year.
The second talk was, at the last minute, moved from the amphitheater to the library, which was actually good as the online connection is, I hear, much much better in the library. Library got crowded, but in the end everyone found a chair. What I did, as I usually do, was to come in early and open up all the websites I wanted to show in reverse chronological order, each in a separate window. Thus, the site I want to show first is on top at the beginning. When I close that window, the second site is the top window, then the third, etc. Thus I do the talk by closing windows instead of opening them (and hoping and praying that would not take too much time).
Knowing how talks usually go in the States, I prepared to talk for about 50 minutes. But, when I hit the 50 minute mark, I realized that nobody was getting restless – everyone was looking intently, jotting down URLs of sites I was showing, nodding….so I continued until I hit 60 minutes as which time I decided to wrap up and end. Even then, nobody was eager to get up and leave. I was hoping I’d get a question anyway….and sure, I got 45 minutes of questions. Then another 20 minutes or so of people approaching me individually to ask questions….
I used the Directory of Open Access Journals as the backdrop to give a brief history of the Open Access movement, the difference between Free Access and Open Access and the distinction between Green OA and Gold OA.
Then I used the site to explain the brief history of PLoS and the differences between our seven journals. Of course, this being medical school, I gave some special consideration to PLoS Medicine.
Then I used the Ida – Darwinius massillae paper to explain the concept of PLoS ONE, how our peer-review is done and to show/demonstrate the functionalities on our papers, e.g., ratings, notes, comments, article-level metrics and trackbacks.
Then I used the Waltzing Matilda paper to enumerate some additional reasons why Open Access is a Good.Thing.
Trackbacks were also a good segue into the seriousness by which the scientific and medical community is treating blogs these days. I showed Speaking of Medicine and EveryONE blog as examples of blogs we use for outreach and information to our community.
I showed and explained (which they seemed to particularly be taken with and jotted down the URL), showed and explained the visibility and respect of such blogging networks as and Nature Network and then Connotea as an example of various experiments in Science 2.0 that Nature is conducting.
I put in a plug for ScienceOnline conferences and the Open Laboratory anthologies as yet another proof how seriously Science 2.0 and science blogging is now being taken in the West. Then showed 515 scientists on Twitter, The Life Scientists group and Medicine 2.0 Microcarnival on FriedFeed as examples of the ways scientists are now using microblogging platforms for communication and collaboration. I pointed out how Pawel Szczesny, through blogging and FriendFeed, got collaborations, publications, and in the end, his current job.
Then I described Jean-Claude Bradley’s concept (and practice) of Open Notebook Science and showed OpenWetWare as a platform for such work. I pointed out that Wikipedia and wiki-like projects are now edited by scientists, showing the examples of A Gene Wiki for Community Annotation of Gene Function, BioGPS and ChemSpider and ended by pointing out a couple of examples of the ways the Web allows citizen scientists to participate in massive collaborative research projects
But probably the most important part of the talk was my discussion of the drawbacks of Impact Factor and the current efforts to develop Article-level metrics to replace it – something that will be particularly difficult to change in developing countries yet is essential especially for them to be cognizant of and to move as fast as they can so as not to be left behind as the new scientific ecosystem evolves.

Belgrade ’09

As the Universiade is happening in Belgrade right now, the city is full of young people from around the world and there is a lot of cool stuff in town, including a variety of clay figurines emerging out of asphalt:

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In the Serbian media

I gave a talk about Open Access at the University Library in Belgrade yesterday (listen to the audio here and see some pictures here).
I was just on TV a couple of hours ago, on Studio B – I talk fast so I had time to promote PLoS, Open Access, blogs and tomorrow’s lecture at Oncology Center at the University of Belgrade in just about 5 minutes on air. This was also probably a rare mention of Twitter and likely the very first mention of FriendFeed in Serbian media. I was wearing a PLoS ONE t-shirt which one of the anchors pointed out 😉
I am about to on the radio (Radio Belgrade 1) where the interview will be a whole hour long. Click on “Радио 1 уживо/RM” on the right margin to listen live at 9pm local (continental European time).

Programing note: next two weeks will be exciting!

As you may already be aware I am about to embark on a trip to Europe again. I will be traveling on Sunday and arriving at Lindau, Germany on Monday for the 59th Meeting of Nobel Laureates. The list of Nobel Laureates (23 of them) and the list of about 600 young researchers from 66 countries are very impressive. Of course, not being a chemist, I’ll have to do some homework before I go (I printed out the complete list of descriptions of all of them to read on the airplane), learning what these people did to get their prizes and what the younger ones are doing hoping to get a Nobel in the future.
My SciBling PZ Myers will also be there, so we will both blog about the sessions and panels and people and, well, beer. Of course, beer, it is Bavaria! Apart from the two of us, there will be a lot of blogging about the meeting on the Scienceblogs Germany site, as well as some on Page 3.14.
But I will also do some work – I will be on an Open Access panel on Tuesday.
What I hope to do is conduct brief (1-2 minutes) interviews with people using a Flash camera, and later upload the files on YouTube and embed them here on the blog. Then I would follow up with a little longer (5-10 minutes) interviews with the same people using a digital audio recorder, upload the files somewhere (probably but I’ll test a few sites to see which one works the best) and embed the podcasts here on the blog. I will also be taking pictures and posting some on Flickr and Facebook and others via Twittpic to Twitter (which then goes to FriendFeed and Facebook as well). So you will be able to see them wherever you follow me online. Note the FriendFeed widget on the bottom of the left side-bar on this blog.
The Lindau meeting is from June 28th to July 3rd, after which I’ll fly to Belgrade for a few days, to visit my Mom and meet some friends (especially those I missed last year). Ana, Vedran and some others are already trying to organize the bust program for me.
I will give a talk at the University Library on Tuesday, July 7th at noon, and then at the Oncology Center at the Medical School at the University of Belgrade at noon on Wednesday, July 8th. I’ll be meeting my high-school friends on the 5th, and two different sets of elementary/middle school friends on the 9th and 11th of July (a bunch of expats are coming from abroad to the July 11th reunion as well). The horse-y friends will be at the Mediterranean games, so I will miss them this time around.
I am in contact with some people there who may be able to tell me more about the newly discovered mammoth fossil (I am not sure I will be able to actually go and see it, but I’ll try) as well as the people who put together the new exhibit of Argentinian dinosaurs (a traveling exhibit that just moved from Germany to Belgrade last week). I am also hoping to give some interviews at local radio and/or TV. More information about the Belgrade leg of the trip will be available on Facebook.
I am likely to be online a lot nonetheless. Apart from blogging the trip and uploading interviews, I will probably also schedule (for automatic posting) ClockQuotes and some reposts of old stuff from the Archives. And I will be in touch with the PLoS HQ and will convey all the exciting news coming from there. And on the 1st of July I will announce the Blog Pick of the Month.