Today's interview with a philosopher who shares his passion outside of philosophy is Gregg Caruso, Associate Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Corning. Let me know at helenldecruz at gmail dot com if you'd like to be featured!
- Can you tell me something about your side-interest/hobby
For several years now, I have been obsessed with collecting fossils. Since I live in central New York State, most of what I hunt and find myself comes from the Devonian period—a geologic period of the Paleozoic, spanning roughly 60 million years from the end of the Silurian (416 million years ago) to the beginning of the Carboniferous (358 million years ago). The fossils in the Devonian rocks of New York have attracted the attention of serious and causal collectors for nearly 200 years. I am very lucky to live in such a fossil-rich part of the country! At the start of the Devonian, the North American protocontinent was located at the equator, with much of what would become New York covered by a shallow tropical sea. The fossils in this area provide a nice snapshot of the rich diversity of life in the ancient Paleozoic waters. I sometimes joke and say "I collect seashells, they just happen to be 390 million years old." The most common fossils in this area are brachiopods, gastropods, cephalopods, and various species of sponges and coral. If you are lucky, however, you may also find eurypterids (ancient sea scorpions) and trilobites (ancient arthropods that look like little alien bugs).
Now that I have been collected for a number of years, I really prize the "big finds"— which for me are full trilobites. They are very hard to come by because most of the time you just find bits and pieces—e.g., a part of the head shield, a segment of the thorax, or a tail piece. It is also hard to find fully outstretched ones since trilobites when scared would tuck in their legs and antennae and roll themselves into tight little balls. Collectors call these "rolly pollies" and I have at least a dozen of them. My most prized fossils, however, are the fully outstretched trilobites I have collected myself.
Here is one example. I found this little guy by cracking open rocks at a quarry near Buffalo, NY. I typically use hammers and chisels of various sizes when I'm out collecting. If I am luck enough to find a trilobite, I then bring it home and take it to my prep lab, which I built in my garage. With this trilobite I used drills and picks to shape the rock and clear away some of the big stuff. Then for the more delicate work, I put the little guy in my blast tank and use my airgun. The abrasive and air pressure need to be enough to eat away the rock but not the shell of the trilobite. As you can imagine, it took a lot of trial and error for me to figure out the right combination. In the end, though, you get this beautiful display piece!
In addition to going out and hunting fossils, I also buy and trade fossils with other collectors. My collection includes some museum-quality pieces. I have a number of big and small ammonites, some rare species of trilobite from around the world, as well as dinosaur bones, teeth, eggs, and tracks. At some point, I will need a larger space to display my collection—it is starting to take over our house.
- How did you get into this hobby?
It was my daughter Maya. She rekindled in me a love of dinosaurs and one weekend I thought it might be fun to go out searching for fossils together. I also thought it would be an enjoyable educational activity for the whole family. Since there are no dinosaur fossils in this area, we started looking for other things. At first I just fumbled about not knowing where to look or what to look for. Then I started doing some research. I discovered a great fossil park near Buffalo, NY called Penn Dixie. During our first trip there I got hooked. We started finding horn coral (buckets of it), brachiopods, and pieces of trilobites. I left with a new hobby. My wife, Elaini, and Maya also enjoyed themselves—Maya especially enjoyed playing among the rocks and hitting things with her hammer. We still enjoy going there, even if now I often have to bribe my daughter by promising to take her to Chuck E. Cheese afterwards.
Over time, though, my hobby has become an obsession. I now typically go on fossil trips myself. I joined a few groups that organize outings—such as the New York Paleontological Society and Paleontological Research Institution. And when I am traveling or on vacation I also like to see if there are any good fossil locations nearby. Last summer when we were down in Florida, for example, my wife sent me on a day trip for my birthday down the Peace River with a guide searching for ancient shark teeth. It was a great adventure. After rowing for about an hour, I had to stand in chest-high water with a shovel and sifter digging into the gravel bed below. I was a bit nervous because I saw three alligators long the bank of the river but it was worth it since I left with dozens of shark teeth, including two megalodon teeth.
- Do you have goals that you want to achieve (e.g., getting to a certain level/winning in a certain kind of competition?)
I have no particular goals. Of course I would love to unearth a complete dinosaur skeleton or discover a new species of trilobite, but that will never happen. I will have to settle for going out west one day and spending a few weeks looking for dinosaur fossils with an expert. I fancy myself an amateur paleontologist and I just want to continue learning. It has been a very rewarding hobby thus far and I just want to continue doing what I’ve been doing for as long as I can.
- Are there any accomplishments that you are particularly proud of and want to share?
I’m not sure it’s an accomplishment, but I am very proud of the skills I have acquired finding and preparing fossils. While the process can be time consuming, the end result is a one-of-the-kind work of art.
- How do you make enough time for your hobby?
That’s difficult. I always have a number of projects in the works so one’s free time is never truly free. Nevertheless, I just force myself to take the time. It’s a great hobby because it includes a number of different components. It’s part treasure hunt, part scientific adventure. And when you do not have the time to go out hunting for fossils, you can always read and learn more about fossils. Or you can go into your lab and prep some fossils. Or you can work on keeping records or create informational cards for your fossils. Or you can simply study your fossils.
- Does your hobby relate to philosophy at all? Any crossovers?
Well, there is some really interesting work being done in the philosophy of paleontology. See, for example, the blog Extinct, which is run by several philosophers who work at the crossroads of philosophy and paleontology. Reading that blog has tempted me to write about my two loves (philosophy and fossils) and how they relate, but I haven’t found the opportunity to do so yet. Perhaps one day I will write a book entitled Socratosaurus, exploring questions about knowledge, language, and the philosophy of science through the lens of paleontology. There definitely are issues to be explored here. Unfortunately, I have not done so myself.
On a more basic level, however, I will say that my hobby has provided me with a deeper understand of evolution—and evolution has always been of great philosophical interest to me. To that extent, they are related.