Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Farish Jenkin's Fauna

Farish Jenkins - paleontologist and polymath, died on Nov 1, aged 72.

While reading an obituary put up by the Economist for Jenkins I was struck by awe and envy in equal measure. I awed by the fact that a man whose primary vocation was that of a soldier could also transform himself into great teacher & scientist in a totally unrelated field - paleontology. And envy towards folks who are able create an environment where you can defy categorization into narrow specialism.

As US Marine Corps captain, Jenkins trained as an artillery officer.  As an academic “hybrid”, he was anatomist, zoologist and vertebrate paleontologist in equal measure.

It is said of him that "he had no time for academic squabbles and protocol, brushing off rebukes and bureaucratic constraints. Charm was his first weapon, obstinacy his second. It was not just his clothes and vocabulary that were old-fashioned. He prized thoroughness. Unusually for modern academia, he showered praise on colleagues and deprecated his own triumphs. But he was a mighty foe when roused. He could swear like a Marine, “without repeating myself” and helped oust the abrasive Larry Summers from the Harvard presidency".

Farish Jenkins also left behind some quirky, memorable names for the new life-forms he discovered -
  • Tiktaalik roseae (Tiktaalik = Inuit for a large freshwater fish) - a 375 million year olf fish with legs, a rudimentary ear and a snout for catching prey
  • Gerrothorax pulcherrimus ("the most beautiful wicker chest") - An animal that opens its mouth by lifting its upper jaw - crucial to discovering the world's earliest known frog. FJ called it the ugliest animal in the world.

The entire text of Economist's memorable obituary can be accessed here.


The Economist (17 Nov., 2012) on Farish Jenkins -

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