Last week, one of (or arguably the) greatest palaeoichnologist, Adolf Seilacher, died at the age of 89. I met him only rarely, and had little professional interaction with him, but that little makes me mourn his death more than I would mourn most other colleagues, even many that I worked or work with closely.
When I was a young student goofing off at Tübingen University I was lucky to have many excellent professors, luminaries in their field. Adolf Seilacher, however, stuck out in many ways, although he was rarely present: “Seili”, as German students called him behind his back, had retired before I even enrolled, but like many of his colleagues he would never stop being a researcher and teacher. Although he spent much time on Yale and in the field, he usually taught a compact course in Tübingen every second summer, and one year I was able to attend. The course was on trace fossils, Seilacher’s main research area, but instead of “Trace fossil analysis” (or whatever the actual German title was), it should have been called “How to be a good scientist, on the example of trace fossils” or some such.
I’ll have some more to say about this course later, but first let me tell you about Seili as a person. From spring through fall, everybody in the building always was aware of his arrival, because he invariably arrived on his trust old Vespa. I do not know how many he owned in succession, but given the work-out he gave them there must have been many. Over the course of the trace fossil analysis course and various conversations I had with him over the years there were quite a few stories, all research-related, that included “mei Veschpa” (yes, he had quite a Swabian accent). It all started, I gather, when as a young grad student or freshly promoted doctor he did not have the means to travel by car to sample the Pyrenees for trace fossils. So he packed as few personal effects as possible, loaded his Vespa with himself, his wife and a backpack that “threatened to work as an involuntary friction brake on the rear tyre”, as he put it, and set off. The narration was accompanied by a hilarious pantomime of the vehicles leaning on slopes up and down. As with many other stories, I am sure some embellishment was involved – but as I came to realise very quickly the embellishments were never meant to increase Seili’s prestige, but rather to drive home the lesson more forcefully, usually via humour. All of these lessons, and nearly every story had one, were delivered with boyish enthusiasm and twinkling eyes, had little to do with being a conforming scientist, and more with being an independent, active, diligent and resourceful inquisitive person. Much, however, was often left unsaid, and it could take me a while to figure out what exactly the central message was.
The funniest and certainly weirdest story Seilacher told us was that of a field trip to the deserts of western Egypt during which a neighbouring research camp was raided by Libyans, who abducted a young American researcher. The poor man was quickly and unceremoniously set free again at the door of some US embassy in Northern Africa, IIRC, and Seilacher thought no more of it for a few years. Then, he was accosted at a conference by a young man he had never met before, as far as he could recall, who stepped up to him and said words to the effect of “great talk – by the way, you’re the man who got me abducted!” It turned out that the Libyans had intended to abduct the world-famous Yale & Tübingen professor, and by accident driven to the wrong camp, abducting an insignificant PhD student instead of Seilacher. Seili concluded the story by remarking dryly that this encounter made him think twice about the personal invitation letter from Muammar Ghaddafi for a research stay in Libya! Needless to say, he didn’t go.
Another story, one that he repeated twice during the one-week trace fossil course (which already tells you that its lesson is important) was that of another meeting with a colleague at a conference, who tore into Seilacher’s just-given talk on trace fossils from some site in Jordan or Morocco or so (sorry, the message got across so well that I forgot the details). The colleague informed Seili that he had been to the very same rock exposure the summer before and had found plenty of trilobite body fossils, which Seilacher said didn’t occur there, but nary a one of the trilobite traces (Cruzianas) that Seili had talked about. He must, insisted the colleague, have mixed up the cliffs and formations! Seili, on the other hand, was quite adamant that yes, he was quite able to read a map, thank you very much, and that he was quite sure of the place and formation. The two of them parted with the conflict unresolved, but with an agreement that would allow a solution to be found a while later: that they would meet there and check out the place together. When they actually managed to make the joint field work happen, they found that they had indeed been talking about the same place. Now, one went left, the other right, to hunt for fossils. Thirty minutes later them met again. Unsurprisingly, Seilacher’s backpack was full of trace fossils. However, his colleague had a backpack full of trilobites! Having seen each other’s spoils, they now changed sides – and golly, the place was indeed full of both body fossils and traces! Lesson learned: collection bias is much stronger than even the most experienced researchers will be ready to believe!
Seili had many idiosyncrasies that make for great story-telling, foremost that one could never know if he was being serious, or making an important point in an elaborate way – or simply pulling one’s leg! A certain playfulness and sense of humour also pervaded his scientific work, most notably expressed in some of the species epithets he coined. Asteriacites gugelhupf is a track made by a suspension feeder from the Carboniferous of Egypt, the bilobed scratch pattern of the upturned arms suggests an asteroid rather than a brittlestar. Seilacher named the trace, because of its similarity in shape, after a cake that is a favourite for birthdays in Germany. Such names that were driven by everyday connotations and associations crop up quite often in his works, as well as other versions of “speaking names”. To Seilacher, science and everyday life were not separated, but one, and while some may see some of his work as science outreach, to him it was just natural, and communicating science to non-scientists came natural to him.
Others way more qualified than I will have much to say about Seilacher’s scientific work, his impact on palaeontology and ichnology, his Crafoord Prize and so on. I’ll just quickly note a huge part of his life effort that falls squarely within the outreach category, and has had a profound impact on the perception of palaeoichnology: the Fossil Art exhibition. This travelling exhibition takes casts of trace fossils and presents them as if they were works of art – accompanied by short texts succinctly explaining what they are. The overall presentation always has the character of an art exhibit, and Seilacher and his collaborator, Tübingen preparator (or should I say preparation magician?) Hans Luginsland selected mostly specimens with an immedatie artistic appeal. The latest version of the catalogue book for the exhibition is available in German from Schweizbart. You can find (low quality) photographs and details on many of its panels it on this page that accompanied a previous stop in Denmark. The most famous one, I guess is this one with plenty of Cruziana on it.
The show has travelled world-wide, with the last two stops in 2013 having been the ETH Zurich and the Senckenberg satellite in Dresden. As far as I could ascertain, the show has now been gifted to Senckenberg, but I was unable to find out where it will move next. I hope the death of Adolf Seilacher will not result in it being stored and forgotten, as it is a beautiful and striking way of arousing interest for palaeontology, and a branch often ignored and unknown to many at that, in the general public, fascination people of all ages and backgrounds.
But now it is really time to come back to the one Seilacher course I took. Trace Fossil Analysis was held in the summer break, with the lecture hall in the main building of the Institute of Geosciences in Tübingen stifling hot or, windows open, noisy and hot, quickly creating a drowsy atmosphere. Still, most attendants were highly motivated, as was the lecturer. We quickly went through some charismatic and historically important trace fossils, including Hitchcock’s ‘birds’ and, obviously, the Chirotherium story. Then came the first invertebrate tracks, and for some tedium set in. And Seilacher proved to be as excellent a lecturer as I had heard: he’s explain things repeatedly, until everbody had had ample chance to understand things, but didn’t mind that some of the quicker minds blanked out after the second repetition. So once he moved on to the next topic, he always raised his voice slightly to ‘wake’ us all again, before he proceeded, with a smile, with the next weird traces. Sometimes, he could hardly keep from laughing when suddenly, people sat back up who had lain down across several seats while he had been talking with his back turned.
At the end of the course, he gave each of us a trace fossil to comment on, as an oral exam. Given the large number of failures and successes he had seen during his long career, it was very touching to see how he tried very hard to coax a modicum of coherently presented knowledge out of the least gifted and interested, so that he could pass them and give them the coveted “Schein” (Attendance Certificate; grades were irrelevant as they didn’t count into the final grade for the diploma), and how tensely he waited for the replies from the obviously smart and interested – as well as his relief when they did perform well. Seili really cared for every young student who attended, and he understood the strength, weaknesses and motivations of all of them!
Let me end this post before I now get all maudlin. Seilacher will be greatly missed by many colleagues, as the many facebook posts already show. I hope that his legacy lives on in the works of the many students and colleagues he influenced.