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Feb 19 2013

Show your work, @JoseCanseco!

The baseball player Jose Canseco made a remarkable series of tweets yesterday.

canseco

I may not be 100% right but think about it. How else could 30 foot leather birds fly?
The land was farther away from the core and had much less gravity so bigness could develop and dominate
My theory is the core of the planet shifted when single continent formed to keep us in a balanced spin
Gravity had to be weaker to make dinosaurs nimble
Animal tissue of muscles and ligaments could not support huge dinosaurs even standing up or pump blood up 60 foot necks
elephants today eight tons supersaurs two hundred tons a totally different world. why?
You ever wonder why nothing REALLY big exists today in nature
Ancient gravity was much weaker

Deja vu, man, deja vu. Any old regulars from the talk.origins usenet group will remember this one: Ted Holden and his endless arguments for Velikovskian catastrophism. Holden also claimed that earth’s gravity had to have been much lower for dinosaurs to stand up.

Ted Holden has been repeatedly posting the claim that sauropod dinosaurs were too large to have existed in 1g acceleration. His argument is based on simple square-cube scaling of human weightlifter performance (in particular, the performance of Bill Kazmaier). His conclusion is that nothing larger than an elephant is possible in 1g. His proposed solution is a “reduction in the felt effect of gravity” (by which he seems to mean the effective acceleration), due to a variant of Velikovskian Catastrophism, often called Saturnism. Ted’s materials in their current form can be found on his web pages dealing with catastrophism.

For those not familiar with Velikovsky, he was a pseudoscientist whose claim to fame was that he so nimbly straddled two disciplines and befuddled people on either side. He was a classical scholar who used his interpretations of ancient texts to claim there was evidence of astronomical catastrophes in Biblical times (his scholarship there impressed astronomers and left the real classical scholars laughing), while also peddling an astronomical model that had planets whizzing out of their orbits and zooming by Earth in near-collisions that caused the disasters in the Bible and other ancient civilizations (his physics dazzled the classical scholars but had physicists gawping in astonishment at their absurdity).

Holden at least tried to do the math; he just flopped and did it wrong. Canseco hasn’t even done that much. Vague and uninformed impressions are not justifications for rejecting science. Here are some quick arguments against this nonsense of dinosaurs living in reduced gravity.

  • Dinosaurs exhibit the adaptations required for their mass: limbs are thicker in proportion to their length, bones show large muscle insertions, bones are thick and dense, etc. The biology clearly obeys the scaling laws we can see in extant animals.

  • Holden’s mechanism for reducing gravity is ridiculous: he postulates, for instance, that Mars hovered above the Earth and that its gravitational pull countered part of the Earth’s pull. It would have to be very close to have that effect, and while it’s true that could reduce the ‘felt effect of gravity’, it would only do so briefly before the two planets collided and destroyed all life, and also, you wouldn’t be alive to experience that brief easing of the gravitational load — you’d have been killed in the destructive chaos during the approach, and your body’s behavior would probably be dominated by atmospheric and geological upheavals anyway.

  • Canseco’s mechanism is pathetic. We already have gravitational variations on the planet, with primary differences between the equator and the poles. These amount to a roughly 0.5% difference in weight — so a 200 pound person weighs 199 pounds at the equator, and 201 pounds at the North Pole. So, most optimistically, if all the gravitational anomalies happened to be piled up on one side of the planet, let’s assume that the Mesozoic variation was greater, all the way up to 1% less on the supercontinent. So that 200 ton supersaur Canseco is concerned about would instead weigh…198 tons. Oooh. That’s enough to make his objections disappear?

At least Canseco is not as delusional as Holden. But if he starts tweeting about giant teratorns carrying Neandertals on their backs, who then fly to Mars and build giant monuments in Cydonia, get him some help, OK?

56 comments

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  1. 1
    slowdjinn

    Oh yeah, I remember facepalming to Ted…never a dull moment.

  2. 2
    Matt Penfold

    If I recall correctly, the biggest species ever to exist is currently extant.

  3. 3
    twosheds1

    Did he get hit in the head with a ball or something? Oh wait, let me re-phrase that: how many balls did he get hit in the head with?

  4. 4
    M31

    Jose Canseco? The guy who as an outfielder, so brilliantly bungled a catch that he bounced the ball off his head into the stands for a homerun?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbIHRGUesZQ

    Yup. I think the bouncing ball did some brain cell damage.

  5. 5
    garnetstar

    “You ever wonder why nothing REALLY big exists today in nature”

    Today’s blue whales are the largest creatures ever to exist on earth, a hell of a lot larger than any dinosaur.

  6. 6
  7. 7
    tbp1

    One of the many reasons I don’t tweet is the fear of sounding off about something I don’t really know anything about. This is just further validation of that decision.

  8. 8
    tfkreference

    @Matt – true, but Mr. Canesco and his ilk would point out that it lives in water, so the buoyancy counteracts the gravity.

    Nevertheless, what they ignore is the mammalian megafauna of more recent geologic times. They did not achieve the size of dinosaurs – I don’t remember the hypotheses for their decline, but gravitational changes were not among them. I do, however, remember my paleontology professor teasing a tall student who was eating a lunch of tofu and sprouts, noting “the quickest way to go extinct is to become a large vegetarian.”

  9. 9
    Irmin

    Mars hovering above Earth? Hey, I’ve seen that in a Futurama episode, looked perfectly reasonable there.

    @Matt Penfold: Yes, but I guess marine animals don’t count.

  10. 10
    slowdjinn

    @2 & 5
    I was going to point out that Blue Whales are aquatic, but then I had to ask myself whether Canseco is likely to understand bouyancy, or even know how bug whales are…

  11. 11
    slowdjinn

    *big*

  12. 12
    ChasCPeterson

    *buoyancy*

  13. 13
    Raging Bee

    But if he starts tweeting about giant teratorns carrying Neandertals on their backs, who then fly to Mars and build giant monuments in Cydonia, get him some help, OK?

    More specifically, get him an agent. This would be comedy gold in the right venue!

  14. 14
    ChasCPeterson

    Y’all are mean. I’m actually kind of impressed than Jose Canseco is thinking about such stuff. You think Sammy Sosa gives a shit about allometry?
    He asks some questions, floats a hypothesis, admits it might not be 100% right, offers evidence, sort of (and there most certainly are open questions about how something like Quetzelcoatlus could fly)… It’s original thinking. Cut the old jock some slack.
    And if you want to make fun of Veiikovsky or some coot from usenet, why get poor Jose mixed up in it?

  15. 15
    cervantes

    Nevertheless it’s an interesting question why many dinosaur species were so %^& big. I understand their biophysics has been worked out plausibly, but the amount of food they had to consume was awesome — and the selection pressure for such ridiculous bigness isn’t obvious.

  16. 16
    Rev. BigDumbChimp

    Y’all are mean. I’m actually kind of impressed than Jose Canseco is thinking about such stuff. You think Sammy Sosa gives a shit about allometry?

    this cracked me up

  17. 17
    Larry

    Too bad all the steroids he injected only built up his muscles, not his brain.

  18. 18
    kevinalexander

    He may be on to something. Modern gravity is at least strong enough to have caused his brains to leak into his ass.

  19. 19
    markr1957

    This sounds too much like the old Monty Python sketch with the Anne Elk (Miss) theory on brontosauruses.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAYDiPizDIs

  20. 20
    glodson

    Well, to be honest, that wasn’t nearly as dumb as I was prepared. It was ill-informed and he really should have done a bit of research first, but I’ve seen people who should know better do worse.

  21. 21
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    Canseco has a wider Twitter repertoire than I suspected. The last tweet of note from him was an attempt to clear up the misconception that he has ” bitch tits.”

  22. 22
    UnknownEric the Apostate

    Oh man, this just makes me even more ashamed that I once had a gigantic framed poster of Canseco on my bedroom wall.

  23. 23
    coozoe

    Baseball players who throw stones should not live in glass houses. Say no to drugs.

  24. 24
    Amphiox

    IIRC, not only has it been worked out that dinosaurs are physiologically perfectly plausible in current gravitational conditions, the maximum size allowable is in fact about 50% bigger than the biggest known specimen, at least for the sauropod body plan.

    Also, the largest modern elephants are easily in the same range as triceratops and T-Rex, Indricotherium and the Colombian Mammoth (the latter only tens of thousands of years old) slot comfortably in the midrange of sauropods weight-wise.

    And it is actually not flying that is the issue with the big archdazids, it is take-off.

  25. 25
    cactusren

    cervantes:

    the selection pressure for such ridiculous bigness isn’t obvious.

    Actually, being big is quite a helpful attribute when there are large predators about. Being big means you can intimidate some predators into leaving you alone, and even if they try to attack you, you’re difficult to kill.

    Alternatively, large size could evolve due to intraspecies competition (for territory, mates, or general social dominance). Being bigger than your opponent means you’re more likely to win the right to better territory and/or more mates.

    These pressures are, of course, balanced by pressures to have enough food to fuel such a large body. But as long as food is abundant enough, there are plenty of reasons animals might evolve larger body sizes.

  26. 26
    vaiyt

    My theory

    You actually mean “my bald assertion”.

  27. 27
    Naked Bunny with a Whip

    That wasn’t Mars, it was Gallifrey. Or perhaps Cybertron. Get the science right, Holden!

  28. 28
    Robert Coolman

    Hey PZ,

    Octave Levenspiel (famous amoung us Chemical Engineers) proposed an interesting solution to the winspan and necklegth problem by suggesting atmospheric pressure used to be 3-5x what it is today. The response has been less than spectacular. I’m cuirous if you’ve heard of his hypothesis and had anything to say about it as an expert in natural history. http://www.levenspiel.com/octave/dinosaurs.htm

  29. 29
    busterggi

    Raphael: “A Jose Canseco bat? Tell me… you didn’t pay money for this. ”

    from ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ the movie, 1990

    Who’da thunk he’d still be so newsworthy?

  30. 30
    kosk11348

    The land was farther away from the core and had much less gravity so bigness could develop and dominate.

    So if the land (planet’s crust) was further away from the core, that would mean the planet was larger in the past. But that would also mean gravity would have been stronger, not weaker. It’s almost as if he thinks gravity only comes from planetary cores and not matter itself.

  31. 31
    Cat's Staff

    Blue Whale …The answer will eventually be Blue Whale.

  32. 32
    Nemo

    So if the land (planet’s crust) was further away from the core, that would mean the planet was larger in the past.

    No, he’s suggesting the core was off-center.

  33. 33
    Eamon Knight

    Ah, those were the days.

    Ted was one of the first phenomena I encountered when I discovered t.o, back in 1990. I recall one of his scenarios, which IIRC had the earth orbiting Saturn in tidal lock, close enough that the “felt effect of gravity” was reduced by Saturn (I’m pretty sure that anything that close to its primary gets shredded by tidal forces). There was also an “electromagnetic flux tube” connecting earth to Saturn which produced celestial spectacles which were recorded in Egyptian mythology, QED.

    Those were the days.

    Of course, I have to credit the whole t.o experience with making me an atheist (albeit by a slow, roundabout process).

  34. 34
    wmdon

    Laugh all you want, but he was thinking of running for mayor of Toronto. And he would have been a lot better than the current imbecile.

    http://yeswecanse.co/

    I would have voted for him. So what if I don’t live in Toronto – neither does he.

  35. 35
    tomatosan

    So if the core of the Earth moves off center to balance a super continent, doesn’t the Earth’s center of gravity stay centered?

  36. 36
    Enopoletus Harding

    I’m no scholar and Velikovsky’s pseudo-scholarship does sometimes make me laugh out loud (more frequently, it leads me into bouts of facepalming). His first major foray into pseudo-scholarship, “Ages in Chaos”, is available here.

  37. 37
    Eamon Knight

    BTW, if anyone is (still) a James P. Hogan fan, you should know that, when last I checked, he was a fan of Velikovsky. But it gets worse: he’s also a fan of David Irving. A case study in skepticism-gone-berserk.

  38. 38
    One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login

    I just want to say how very refreshing it is that you feel a need to remind people who Velikovsky was. One of the rewards of aging: watching the asshats of your youth fading into a well-deserved obscurity.

  39. 39
    bovarchist

    What? Nobody mentioned Robert Sawyer’s novel End of an Era, which came up with a much more interesting SF premise for how gravity could have been lower in dinosaur days? Turns out colonizing aliens were reducing it technologically. And when they left, splat…dead dinosaurs.

    (good book btw, check it out)

  40. 40
    coyotenose

    anytime someone uses the phrase “think about it” as part of their argument, it means they are aware they don’t have an argument.

  41. 41
    Rip Steakface

    I’m with ChasC. This is just Canseco kinda thinking on an issue aloud (via Twitter). No, he hasn’t done the research, but he’s probably not interested in the specifics. I’m gonna sound horrifically accommodationist, but it may be a good idea to just send him a nice little explanation of how animals of the period got so huge, and more than likely he’d ask one or two questions (“huh, so then what about this..?”) and decide “well, that’s cool. Time for more baseball!”

    You don’t come across A-Rod ruminating on 20th century geopolitics or Barry Bonds wondering about what makes nuclear reactors work, so give the guy some credit for at least being a little inquisitive.

  42. 42
    Pierce R. Butler

    We already have gravitational variations on the planet, with primary differences between the equator and the poles. These amount to a roughly 0.5% difference in weight — so a 200 pound person weighs 199 pounds at the equator, and 201 pounds at the North Pole.

    Isn’t that, like, um, a 1% differential?

  43. 43
    twas brillig (stevem)

    “…or pump blood up 60 ft necks”

    on this one (and only) point. I think the current thinking is that the long necks were not held vertically but more horizontally to let then sweep out a huge range to gather food without moving their body. That the typical picture of a “brontosaurus” is completely mistaken (or so I understand).
    But Canseco has so many other misconceptions, I’m sure this one correction will make little difference.

  44. 44
    SQB

    But in those days the earth spun faster, so the centrifugal force would’ve counteracted gravity!

  45. 45
    louisi

    Pneumaticized neck bones / vertebrae also reduced weight. Modern birds have pretty solid leg bones, but pneumaticized skeletons, which them to fly.

    @cervantes (15)
    Sure, they ate a lot, but the real question is whether they were warm blooded. Warm blooded animals need maybe 15 times more food or so than cold blooded ones of the same size (in order to generate body heat). In large sauropods, body size becomes a significant factor (gigantothermy), simply put big thing cool down more slowly than smaller things. Perhaps dinosaurs were weakly homeothermic, which along with the gigantothermy would have allowed them some or most of the benefits of homeothermy, but they’d have been able to divert a greater proportion of their energy intake to growth than heat generation.

    @stevem (43)
    Bingo! Yes, the horizontal spine seem more likely. The pics of large sauropods we’ve all seen with necks held high are probably wrong.

  46. 46
    karpad

    I’m actually with Chas on this one. Yeah, he’s wrong, about pretty much everything. But let’s review what he accepts as fact, from the get go:
    Evolution
    Plate Tectonics
    Billion year timescales.
    He doesn’t actually assert expertise, and is more floating an ill informed guess based on his limited awareness of the situation. Just saying, yeah, he’s a grown man, but if my son had made such declarations, I’d be proud of him for using reasoning and critical thinking, even if he was wrong, then take him to the library to check out a dozen books on sauropods. And by the time he was done, he’d know that he was wrong, but also why he was wrong, and what was right. Total teaching moment.

    I kind of have a soft spot for him, not because I particularly like him as an athlete, but because when his book came out in 2005, asserting that literally everyone in MLB was juicing, and was met widely with mocking sneers, called a lying asshole cheatyface impugning the integrity of REAL baseball players.
    And then years later, it turned out he was telling the truth, and was just not charismatic enough to be persuasive. Like a roided up Cassandra.

  47. 47
    meursalt

    I’m with the other commenters who are sympathetic to Canseco. If he doubles down, then he deserves ridicule. For now, I’m impressed that he even has an interest in this stuff. It’s not like he’s peddling medical quackery or offering bad financial advice.

    The first thing that came to my mind was cartoonist and CGI artist Neal Adams’ wacky expanding Earth hypothesis. IIRC, he uses large sauropods as a supporting point for his Theory of Everything. I don’t remember the specifics, but he was trying to show weaker gravity during the Cretaceous. His videos are searchable on YouTube if anyone is curious and has time to waste. Just don’t tell Jose, it’s the last thing he needs to see right now.

    PZ sez:

    Holden at least tried to do the math; he just flopped and did it wrong. Canseco hasn’t even done that much.

    To be fair, Canseco started doing the math, but he quickly realized that his ballpark figures weren’t going to impress The Scientists.

    [ducks and runs]

  48. 48
    ginckgo

    meurdalt @47: Neal Adams is only the most loopy of Expanding Earthers (sorry: Growing Earth for him). There are ‘serious’ scientists working on this idea, it seems to be coming back in fashion, and the old ‘dinosaurs were too big for 1G’ argument is a common theme. Anyone interested in seeing the mental contortions the EE crowd get themselves into can see over 400 pages of it over at http://www.rationalskepticism.org/pseudoscience/expanding-earth-do-the-continents-wind-back-to-a-sphere-t8539.html

  49. 49
    Useless

    Canseco’s explanation is just silly. The earth was just spinning a lot faster 6000 years ago and the continents were lined up along the equator. That all changed with the Great Deluge when the flood waters redistributed the continents. You can’t argue with scientific facts if you see them on the Internet.

  50. 50
    musubk

    Mars hovered above the Earth and that its gravitational pull countered part of the Earth’s pull

    This… isn’t really what he postulates, is it? o_0

    Because obviously that means we would only find dinosaur remains on the part of Earth that was under Mars, and if the dinosaurs couldn’t live in 1g, they definitely couldn’t live in the (1+something)g on the opposite side.

    Or maybe he thinks Mars was orbiting, and the dinosaurs migrated to stay underneath? So clearly we’ll find dinosaur remains in the ring of the orbital plane, and nothing along the axis of orbit where it’s still 1g, and nothing in a cone about that axis until you get enough of an upward component from Mars. Oh, and it’s a good thing every single species of dinosaur was just as at home on land as in water!

  51. 51
    zetopan

    “He was a classical scholar”

    That statement severely stretches the definition of “scholarship”. He was actually a
    profoundly scientifically illiterate psychiatrist.

    “he postulates, for instance, that Mars hovered above the Earth and that its gravitational
    pull countered part of the Earth’s pull”

    That is incorrect. Velikovsky had the Earth, Venus and Mars playing cosmic billiards, but
    the “reduced felt effect of gravity” was supposed to be due to the Earth orbiting Saturn.
    And since that is apparently not sufficiently stupid enough, the Earth spinning on its axis
    (magically) kept the same pole oriented towards Saturn. Gyroscopic action apparently
    did not exist in the historical past. Also note that the “Specified Stupidity Index” ™ gets
    multiplied by a large number since Velikovsky also claimed that Venus is a comet that
    was literally spit out of Jupiter. And the “manna from heaven” claims in the Bible were
    hydrocarbons[*] raining down from the comet Venus’ tail as the Earth passed through
    it.

    *NOTE: Apparently, somehow confusing hydrocarbons with carbohydrates. Although
    with Velikovsky it is generally difficult to determine what he wasn’t confused about,
    and that goes for his idiot acolytes as well.

  52. 52
    Christophe Thill

    Another nice crackpot theory is Hans Hörbiger’s: the moon’s orbit is actually a spiral, which means that at some points the moon was much closer to the earth than it is today, counterbalancing the earth’s gravity and allowing huge beings to exist. And so, at one time, the earth had big dinosaurs; and at a later period, human giants (who built the Maya monuments and the Pyramids).

    But what happens when the moon keeps getting closer? Well, obviously, it crashes! So there is a period without a moon, after which the earth’s gravity captures asteroids that form a new moon.

    Also, outer space is filled with ice.

  53. 53
    meursalt

    @ginckgo:

    Anyone interested in seeing the mental contortions the EE crowd get themselves into can see over 400 pages of it

    Thanks, but I’m not that interested. You’ll notice I couldn’t be bothered to review Adams’ brief videos to remember exactly why he thought the existence of sauropods invalidates geology as a whole. IIRC, for Adams it ultimately comes down to a rejection of modern quantum physics, something involving our understanding of electrons and positrons (or maybe it was protons) being fundamentally wrong. Adams is clearly an intelligent individual and has spent a lot of time coming up with something difficult to falsify. I sat through a two hour interview with him on the Skeptic’s Guide once, and was quite disappointed when it eventually came down to argument ad quanta. So I hope you’ll understand my not wanting to further clutter my mind with EE garbage. I’d rather read a retrospective of Shaver’s hollow Earth fantasies, and that’s saying a lot.

  54. 54
    Kristof

    Gravity must be getting weaker then, since both aeroplanes and Americans are getting bigger and bigger… ;)

  55. 55
    dean

    It used to be scientific breakthroughs were published in expensive, difficult to access journals, with the ideas often couched in difficult verbiage and mathematics.
    Then people began publishing their “revolutionary ideas” in books because “peer review was rigged against new ideas.”
    Now, apparently, the publishing industry has become rigged against these radical thinkers, or writing complete sentences in complete paragraphs in complete chapters of books has become too “traditional”, so bold ideas are distributed to the masses through Twitter feeds.
    Progress marches on.

  56. 56
    David Marjanović

    Biomechanics is a science nowadays. There is absolutely no problem with the existence of any known dinosaur in modern gravity; even the largest pterosaurs would have no problem flying – and even taking off from the ground – in today’s gravity and atmosphere.

    There are reasons why terrestrial placental mammals can’t grow to the size of most sauropods. But that’s because they 1) have very, very slow reproduction, so anything that kills the adults wipes the entire population out; 2) chew their food, so they need a huge, heavy head; 3) lack an air-sac system, so can’t grow a neck much longer than a giraffe’s and still breathe.

    there most certainly are open questions about how something like Quetz[a]lcoatlus could fly

    There haven’t been for years. Look up Michael Habib’s papers.

    the amount of food they had to consume was awesome — and the selection pressure for such ridiculous bigness isn’t obvious.

    Being huge allows longer gut retention times, thus longer fermentation times, and stuff like araucaria needles are quite nutritious if fermented for long enough. Being huge also allows reaching higher branches… and some immunity from predators, and so on.

    And it is actually not flying that is the issue with the big archdazids, it is take-off.

    Azhdarchids.

    Birds take off by jumping off with their hindlimbs. (Yes, even hummingbirds derive 80 % of the necessary force that way.)

    Pterosaurs took off by jumping off with their forelimbs, where all the huge muscles already were. The bone fibers in the wings are aligned for the stresses of taking off, not so much for the weaker ones of flying. The math has been done, it works beautifully – imagine an animal the size of a giraffe just catapulting itself away.

    suggesting atmospheric pressure used to be 3-5x what it is today

    An entirely unnecessary hypothesis – and it would change the sizes of fossil raindrop imprints.

    I think the current thinking is that the long necks were not held vertically but more horizontally to let then sweep out a huge range to gather food without moving their body. That the typical picture of a “brontosaurus” is completely mistaken (or so I understand).

    Still debated. Valves in the arteries, which would be extremely easy to evolve, would completely eliminate this problem – too bad they don’t fossilize.

    Also, there’s nothing wrong with moving your body. At that kind of size, the relative costs of walking with such long legs are negligible.

    Pneumaticized neck bones / vertebrae also reduced weight. Modern birds have pretty solid leg bones, but pneumaticized skeletons, which them to fly.

    Bats don’t have pneumatized skeletons.

    But pterosaurs and saurischian dinosaurs (the latter including birds) do, to varying extents.

    In large sauropods, body size becomes a significant factor (gigantothermy)

    Not at that body shape and with an air-sac system that cools the body, no. In fact, there is no known example of gigantothermy today; leatherback turtles were thought to be one, but they actually have an elevated metabolism.

    they’d have been able to divert a greater proportion of their energy intake to growth than heat generation

    That’s backwards. Growing fast and digesting fast produce more than enough heat.

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