Saturday, May 15, 2010

Thag Simmons, R.I.P.

Despite its older-than-I-am pop culture references and obscure zoology jokes, The Far Side played a larger role in my young life than it should have. Hell, it ceased to be before I entered eighth grade, which alone should indicate that most of its strips would have been meaningless to me back when they were still appearing in newspapers. Still, as I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, I read it and bought the books and got something out of it all. And, via Dina, I just recently learned that The Far Side also gave a word to the world of paleontology.
thagomizer (THAG-ō-mīz-er) — noun: the arrangement of tail spikes found on certain dinosaurs, most famously the stegosaurus.
The minute Dina sent me the link to the Wikipedia page for the thagomizer, I instantly knew what it had to be, where it had gotten its name and why Dina had thought to push it my way. The term thagomizer comes from a 1982 Far Side strip featuring a caveman lecturing to a class about dinosaur anatomy, the joke being that the anatomical feature was named for a fellow caveman who presumably died as a result of contact with it. (Fun honor, becoming the namesake for the thing that killed you. Mark my words: One day we will refer to the act of giving a belly buzzer to a hibernating bear as doing a Drew Mackie.)

And though I clearly remembered the strip, I didn’t know that a real-life paleontologist — Ken Carpenter of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science — is credited as having first used the term in real-life in 1993. Thagomizer then became an unofficial but nonetheless recognized term to describe dinosaur tail spikes that has been used in other museums, including the Smithsonian. The Wikipedia entry on the thagomizer concludes with this note: “The fate of Thag Simmons notwithstanding, dinosaurs and humans did not exist in the same era.” Part of me hates that this has to be pointed out, but another part of me understands the widely varying intelligence levels of the people who use Wikipedia and therefore accepts that this sentence is necessary.

Since we’re on the subject, thagomizer is not the only word to originate on the funny pages and pass into the realm of science. Wikipedia notes that some scientists find the term Big Bang just a little pedestrian and prefer instead Horrendous Space Kablooie, a term coined by a Calvin & Hobbes strip. Al Capp’s Shmoo has lent its name to the fields of socioeconomics, astronomy and beer- and bread-making. And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Far Side author himself, Gary Larson, had a species of chewing lice named after him: Strigiphilus garylarsoni. (Again, a weird honor, though it’s at least better than the cancer-causing protein known as Sonic hedgehog. “The bad news is that you’re dying, but the good news is that the thing killing you has a quirky name!” A potential inhibitor for this little menace? Robotnikinin, of course.)

And now, five lines of empty space in memory of the late Thag Simmons.

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