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Weird Science: Here's a story that seems unbelievable in the Internet age, but it actually happened. For my science fair project in fourth or fifth grade, I decided to explore an idea that had occured to me in a flash of insight: that the ancestors of today's whales lived on land, and were dinosaurs. I saw this project through to completion without ever discovering the truth: that whales are mammals and so their land-dwelling ancestors were also mammals. That while the dinosaurs have living descendants, they're not mammals but birds.

I can explain in a couple sentences what's wrong with my old science project because I now have a basic grasp of evolution and the history of life. That information was not available to me in 1988. We had a World Book encyclopedia that probably had this information somewhere but not under any heading I would think to look under, and certainly didn't discuss the evolution of whales under "Whales". I think I was able to wrangle a trip to the college library to get a better picture of a whale skeleton so that I could point out artifacts of the whales' land-locked history. Nowadays, if I go to Wikipedia, the first and last reference for grade-school science projects, I see on the second screen: "All cetaceans... are descendants of land-living mammals." Case closed.

I'm not going to blame my tools. I must have blocked out contradictory evidence--I'm pretty sure I knew about Archaeopteryx. And I knew at the time that my basic hypothesis, that dinosaurs didn't go extinct, was based on unscientific wishful thinking. But the tools made the difference between this being a passing fancy that was validated in an unexpected and fruitful way ("Aha! Birds! More generally, evolution!"), and something I did a lot of work on without managing to notice it was totally wrong.

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