People using data

I am constantly amazed by what specialists can make of their data.  I shouldn’t be.  That’s what specialization is for, after all.  But it’s beautiful when it happens.  This is from an article about identifying the origins of a ship found under the World Trade Center ruins:

An oak sailboat in New York could have originated anywhere in Europe or North America. Dutch ships originally carried sloops across the Atlantic in the 1600s. Whose side was this sailboat on? Pederson said when they first heard of the find they weren’t sure if they could track the soggy wood - when the team saw the keelson, the upper floor of the hull, the planks looked like white oak. When Blanchette confirmed their suspicions but added that they’d be getting a sample of hickory from the keel, the tree-ring team were relieved. The hickory keel sample was key - “it’s been extinct in Europe for two million years or so,” Pederson said.

So once the team did their own grueling process of slowly drying the timbers, waiting to see if the wood would decay, then sanding the samples, and counting the rings, sometimes as thin as one thousandth of a millimeter, and hoping each sample would provide at least 100 years of rings to make the sample comparable to other chronologies then the scientists got started looking for a match. They used a computer system to compare their samples with chronologies of forests from the New York State’s Hudson Valley and then took a stab at a historical timber chronology they have from Philadelphia, “and that just about nailed it – really good,” said Pederson.

…If the hull was part of the original vessel and not part of a refurbishment, the tree ring data point to a launch date for this shallow-sailing sloop that was sometime after the 1773 winter’s Tea Party in Boston, and likely before the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, in the vessel’s hometown. This is a boat that sailed during the American Revolution

The combination of learning, collaboration, hard work and technology that makes these kinds of conclusions possible is awe-inspiring.

Posted on September 10th, 2011 by Katxena