What’s in a number?
If you’ve walked past Olin Science Hall this summer, you’ve probably noticed the big sign in the window that boasts “# of specimens counted,” followed by an ever-climbing number. Al Weik ’14, a geosciences major from Lebanon, Pa., says that making a sign to keep track of his progress made sense (“I’d never counted to 79,000 before”), but displaying it so prominently was his advisor’s idea. He didn’t realize the entire campus was following his research until he went a few days without updating the count, and suddenly people from other departments started asking him if he was done.
He’s grown used to the inevitable question: Counting what? An Anderson Research Scholar, Weik has spent his summer studying shells (and the occasional shark tooth) in order to assess anthropogenic, or human, impact in the Gulf of California. In layman’s terms, he clarifies, if aliens were to come here 5,000 years from now, would they be able to tell which samples predated humans based on the sediment record?
Weik’s research began in April, when he had the opportunity to gather samples in the Gulf of California with his advisor, Associate Professor Dave Goodwin. Along with a professor and a graduate student from Cornell, the pair spent four days working in the delta of the Colorado River. They were in a very remote area, he recalls: “There wasn’t a human within 20 miles.” Most of the samples they collected came from beaches and tide flats. “What is on the tide flat right now will be on the beach in the future,” he explains. “I want to figure out, is it different from what was deposited there in the past?”
So how long does it take, exactly, to count past 79,000? Weik, who is a member of the Denison men’s swimming and diving team, says it took four weeks to sort his specimens—first by morphotype, then by species—and another two weeks to count them all. No one has ever done this kind of work with such a big sample size, he adds; others have only considered a few thousand specimens.
Last time he updated his sign, he had 79,373, but he estimates that the final count will be more than 100,000. Although he’s almost done with his summer research—his main project this week is writing an abstract of his findings so that he can present them to the Geological Society of America—Weik plans to build on it by incorporating the samples and data into his senior project. “I feel obligated to myself,” he says. “We’ve done so much work, but there is so much more left to get out of this. We haven’t even scratched the surface.”