This week, Lorna O’Brien realized what may well be every paleontologist’s dream: to be the first to describe a brand-new species. Hers is a slightly odd, stalked, filter-feeding creature which looks uncannily like a tulip, named Siphusauctum gregarium. It was found in strata from the Burgess Shale, Canada’s Cambrian fossil goldmine, which continues to produce new discoveries at regular intervals. “There’s been so much work done on the Burgess Shale in the past 100 years,” says O’Brien, a PhD candidate in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto and the Department of Paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). “When I was an undergrad, I never thought I’d get the opportunity to name a Burgess Shale animal, so in that sense it’s been incredibly exciting.”
“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” This summary, usually attributed to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, seem especially true of scientific knowledge. Take plate tectonics. The idea that surface of the earth is constantly changing as continents drift around on top of a layer of molten rock is so well established that it’s hard for most people to imagine otherwise. But exactly 100 years ago today, when a 31-year-old German meteorologist named Alfred Wegener presented this idea at a meeting of the Geological Association in Frankfurt, he was mocked. It would take decades and the work of many other scientists – including some prominent Canadians – to show that plate tectonics are as real as gravity and evolution.