Archive for Saturday, July 2, 2011

16 things: KU’s Natural History Museum director shares experiences

July 2, 2011


Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of stories by reporter Andy Hyland, asking Kansas University staff to share “16 Things I’ve Done.”

Leonard Krishtalka is a Kansas University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of KU's Natural History Museum.

Leonard Krishtalka is a Kansas University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of KU's Natural History Museum.

I first got the idea from a newspaper in San Diego, which went around to academics and simply got them talking about things they’ve done.

I wanted to do that at Kansas University, and I knew where I wanted to start: in the office of Leonard Krishtalka, director of KU’s Natural History Museum and biodiversity research center.

He agreed to be the guinea pig for the idea — but was adamant that he not be treated as some kind of celebrity and that we avoid focusing on trite clichés.

“It’s not about me,” he said. “Focus on the big ideas.”

He has helped expand the focus of the museum to include biodiversity informatics, which includes predictive aspects of the work of the museum as well as descriptive ones.

And here are 16 things he’s done:

• Walked with his father under the stars in Montreal, where he was born. His father asked him how many stars there were in the sky. Knowing it to be a trick, Krishtalka said he didn’t know.

“365,232,657,089,” his father said. When Krishtalka asked how he knew, his father replied. “If you don’t believe me, count.”

• Dissected a frog with his mother on the kitchen table as part of a homework assignment while at McGill University in Montreal.

“There is this huge diversity of life, and there is a pattern to this diversity,” he said. “These were wondrous patterns I wanted to understand.”

• Dropped out before he failed his third year at McGill. He entered at 16 and found that the movie theater down the street from the university showed three movies a day. He wasn’t mature enough at the time, he said, and watched 15 movies a week instead of going to class.

• Worked menial jobs in Alberta for two years after that, including one in a paper mill. He came back, though, two years later, to the University of Alberta, where he discovered paleontology. He said he was “inculcated with his parents’ idea that education was everything.”

• Discovered a complete skull of a horned, triceratops-like dinosaur called monoclonius in Alberta. When he saw the tip of the nose horn poking out of the ground, and the base of the skull a few feet away, he knew what he had found.

• Smoked for much of his career, and rolled his own cigarettes with Drum tobacco. When he’d go out into the field, he’d never smoke a cigarette until he found the first fossil of the day. No fossils meant no cigarettes.

• Studied under Craig Black both at Kansas and Texas Tech, where Black became the director of the Natural History Museum. Black became like a mentor to Krishtalka and taught him to ask the big questions. “What does it all mean?” Black would press him to answer.

• Noticed a blue car when he first came to KU as a Ph.D. student in the 1970s that seemed to be following him everywhere. Men with suits were in the car. He wondered if they were the KBI, watching him or someone else around him for who knows what reason.

“It scared me,” he said. “I had never seen anything like this in Canada.”

He walked up to the men one day and knocked on their window, and told them he would be soon going to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream store. He didn’t see them again after that.

• Wrote two novels, drawing on an appreciation for the role of the arts and the humanities in science. He’s unpublished but is represented by a literary agent in London. One involves a paleontologist who disappears on an expedition, and another deals with cave art, he said.

• Raised two children, Zack and Molly. He said he’s tried to teach them to do three things — “Be smart, question authority and kick ass.”

That last one is figuratively and not literally, he’s quick to add.

• Bicycled up and down Mont Ventoux in southern France in 5-degree weather. It’s a mountain that’s frequently featured in the Tour de France.

He did it with a cycling group, and his son, about 14 or 15 at the time, met him at the top, where he was so cold, he could barely get off his bike.

“I did it for Zack, I suppose,” Krishtalka said, as part of showing him what “kicking ass” was all about.

• Traded papers with his daughter, who is in law school at McGill University. He often reads her papers. He’s not allowed to edit them — he just gives feedback. She reads his op-ed pieces before they run. She’s allowed to edit them.

• Been written about in Time magazine twice — once for helping to find a large fossil site in Wyoming and once for finding a part of the famous prehuman “Lucy” fossil in Africa.

“That doesn’t make me a celebrity,” he said. “Any fool can find fossils.”

• Threw the Lucy fossil — a part of the skull about the size of a small turtle shell — like a Frisbee to another colleague, who fortunately caught it. That was not a good idea, he admits now.

• Worked at the National Science Foundation for three years, where he reviewed some of the most exciting projects that were going on around the country, and only got to fund about a third of them.

• Argued for the inclusion of the teaching of evolution in high schools when it was threatened in Kansas.

His greatest disappointment, he said, is “that people will not separate faith and belief from reason and thought.”


geekin_topekan 6 years, 11 months ago

Brokeback should shut this blasphemous institution down! We all know that the Earth was created 8000 years ago and that fossils were placed by Satan to test our faith in Jayzus.

Hurry BB, these sinners must not corrupt the young Kansas minds any more than they already have!

Liberty275 6 years, 11 months ago


Interesting name there. We all know it refers to Brownback, and we all know the homosexual connotation. Yes, it's always fun to turn a word and have a little fun belittling someone you don't like. It's the American way. But the question remains. Do you think insinuating that someone is gay in jest is an effective insult? Is there something wrong with being gay?

Liberty275 6 years, 11 months ago

It seems like a pretty good way to earn some money. You should just think of it as just another Dirty Job and hope Mike Rowe shows up and joins in.

Sean Livingstone 6 years, 11 months ago

God created us equal... including gays and lesbians, morons and idiots, nerds and geeks, hunks and dudes, stupid and smart. It's because the other exists, that's why we appreciate ourselves (it's all relative in life...). Without HIV and AIDS, we will not appreciate the meaning of self control... and doing things the safe way (by the way, there's nothing safe about...). Without fundamentalists, we'll never appreciate those who treat religions the right way. Without geeks, I won't be typing my comments here... appreciate everything in life... gays and lesbians... they're made to make our lives more exciting... just like sluts, feminists, chauvanists, criminals, commoners, and me... I'm here to let you live the way you like... cheers and have a beer!

Joseph Jarvis 6 years, 11 months ago


"Of course there isn't anything wrong with being gay. HIV and AIDS is a gift from the Gods."

What a horrible thing to say.

"I'm sorry but [two women having sex] is just as sickening as two men."

You've got LGBT neighbors in the forums here. Have you ever thought about the impact of your words?

devobrun 6 years, 11 months ago

His greatest disappointment, he said, is “that people will not separate faith and belief from reason and thought.”


So why should I believe a narrative about "common ancestors"? Notice I didn't add "instead of religious narratives".

What is the point of “Focus on the big ideas” if not to question the authority of the church? And how does one question the authority of modern narrative science without being lumped into the category of those who give God as the alternative?

I say neither is reasonable. We don't know. Furthermore, we probably will never know about the big ideas and that makes them useless...unless your goal is to give an alternative narrative to traditional religion.

It is a new religion. Yawn, thanks Dr. K, for nothin'.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 11 months ago

Actually, you can question it all you want. But unless you have better data and/or better ways to interpret the data, your questioning doesn't really mean all that much.

Sean Livingstone 6 years, 11 months ago

bozo, yes... we need data. I'm never a doubter of evolution. The problem is about solely relying on data... Charles Darwin never had data... he used observations and that is not considered data. Data becomes available after Charles Darwin's publication.. today's DNA etc. In fact, creationists claim to have "data" and if you look carefully... they do use data. But garbage in garbage out.... so we should not simply use data.... you know you can gather data from the bible ya know.. :)

kantubek 6 years, 11 months ago

Great piece, Andy! Dr. Krishtalka is quite a character, I've always held him in high regard. I suggest Donald Worster, Jerome Dobson, Timothy Miller, Richard Botkin, and James Shortridge for any future bios.

Keep up the good work!

devobrun 6 years, 11 months ago

True bozo, because the meaning of the entire argument is wrapped up in the human urge to know and only to know. The epistemology of "big ideas" is flawed. Big ideas like grand scale narratives about the origins are at once untestable and not fecund.

So my alternative is that we don't know. Our ability to test the grand narrative is very limited....certainly not reproducible. None of the results of either religion amounts to anything other than human hubris.

BTW bozo, the null hypothesis (that we don't know) has been shown to be the best hypothesis over and over in the search for knowledge. Usually grand narratives end up being wrong, useless, or just funny.

Four elements, fire, water, air, and earth. Aether. Well, at least they became testable.. Processes that require millions of years are not. The big idea of evolution can be boiled down to multiplying infinity times zero. You can get any answer you want.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 11 months ago

"BTW bozo, the null hypothesis (that we don't know) has been shown to be the best hypothesis over and over in the search for knowledge."

But it doesn't apply to engineers, right?

EJ Mulligan 6 years, 11 months ago

This is a great idea for a series -- can't wait to read more. Thank you, Andy!

ahyland 6 years, 11 months ago

Thanks for the kind words, folks, and for the suggestions. I'm looking forward to doing some more of these in the future.

Andy Hyland KU reporter

Bob Forer 6 years, 11 months ago

"Be smart, question authority and kick ass."

The problem with Kansas is that we don't have enough folks like this guy.

WhiteDog 6 years, 11 months ago

it's been a long time since I read an article that had me grinning from ear to ear the whole time. Now this is a person I'd like to meet, and I can't wait to read more of the series. So many of the faculty that I have admired over the years are gone now, but I'm looking forward to reading the articles about the others who are chosen.

devobrun 6 years, 11 months ago

From Andy: "went around to academics and simply got them talking about things they’ve done".

“It’s not about me,” he said. “Focus on the big ideas.” From Dr. K.

Andy, you have a problem. You want to know about people, who they are and what are the things they've done. So your first interviewee says it isn't about him. It is about "big ideas".

So what is it Andy? Is this interview with a person, or an idea? Your first interview and you are led into Oz. And neither you nor the readers see that this is set up. It is propaganda about an idea....while sayijng it is about a person.

Bologna. It is advertising. It is fluff. Come on Andy.....interview somebody who has really done something. How 'bout an electrical engineering prof who worked with Claude Shannon, or a physics prof who worked with Richard Feynman.

Evolutionary ecology....puyllease. How useless can you get?

Bob Forer 6 years, 11 months ago

Calm down, Devo. Perhaps you might want to kick back, pop a cold one, and relax. Mr. Hyland can only control his questions, and not his interviewee's answers.

Your gratuitous attack on evolutionary ecology is unbecoming a man of letters such as yourself. Are you jealous that you have not been chosen as one of Mr. Hylands's academicians?

Jeez, I would hate to be married to you, or one of your kids.

devobrun 6 years, 11 months ago

Leonard Krishtalka stands for evolution. It is what he presents to the public and is the reason that this article is written. His science is Aristotelian. It relies on logical argument and reason and evidence. It is, at best, logical positivism.

He ignores the scientific necessity of experiment.

As such, he represents a scientific philosophy that exists only to feed political agendas. His science has rejected refutation, experimentation, the test. Thus, my comments are not gratuitous.

Your personal comments are spurious. What is your point?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 11 months ago

"Thus, my comments are not gratuitous."

No, merely self-serving, as only engineers do "real" science.

devobrun 6 years, 11 months ago

Only people who do experiments to test for refutation of the hypothesis do science.

Bob Forer 6 years, 11 months ago

Perhaps that is why despite our PhD, you are a mere lecturer, and not a professor.

devobrun 6 years, 11 months ago

Most assuredly, psycho. It is why I returned to teaching and rejected the borg.

I consider it my most selfless act. Would that others reject the mainstream bobble-headed science that is the tradition this time.

Challenge authority? It sure isn't challenging Christianity anymore.

Hey you are "the man".

Deal with it.

cato_the_elder 6 years, 11 months ago

"His greatest disappointment, he said, is 'that people will not separate faith and belief from reason and thought.'"

I'm sure that's true. Krishtalka's one of the most notorious atheists in Lawrence. Interesting how I can tolerate his atheism but he apparently can't tolerate my faith and belief.

devobrun 6 years, 11 months ago

It doesn't occur to atheists that their knowledge that God doesn't exist is a faith.
What is the epistemology of God? Faith.

Liberty275 6 years, 11 months ago

It occurs to some of us. That's why some of us loathe agnostics.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years, 11 months ago

Most atheists I know don't claim any knowledge that God doesn't exist. They merely point out the logical inconsistency in the notion of the necessity of a supreme creator to explain the existence of the universe.

devobrun 6 years, 11 months ago

Oops bozo, the definition of an atheist is one who doesn't believe in a deity.

Liberty275 6 years, 11 months ago

Or one could say an atheist is one that - believes - gods, ghosts and souls don't exist.

Liberty275 6 years, 11 months ago

Then most atheists you know are mere agnostics.

devobrun 6 years, 11 months ago

"Regardless of their differences, most atheists I know are very spiritual and have very deep faith in their scientifically grounded beliefs."

Hmmm, deep faith in scientifically grounded beliefs. Science as faith (evolution)? Or faith as science (creation)?
Two sides of the same coin. And thus, the big ideas in science serve to support your spirituality. The grand narratives give you meaning, right? No deity, but faith. So the argument over what to teach in high school science class becomes an argument over faith.

Further supporting the demise of science as experiment. Further defining science as a mode to a solution. No wonder scientists are mute regarding so much drivel that goes as science today. If the science they do gives them spiritual satisfaction......then "they are simply on a different spiritual path than I am."

I guess I missed the part of the definition of science that says to follow my bliss.

Liberty275 6 years, 11 months ago

"Hmmm, deep faith in scientifically grounded beliefs. "

How about deep faith that moderately tested theories are more valid than utterly unproven doctrines that do little to hide their true purpose of manipulating persons' actions.

devobrun 6 years, 11 months ago

How 'bout all theories are evaluated honestly. At what point does a theory transition from not tested, to slightly tested, to moderately tested, to significantly tested, to thoroughly tested?

I fly on airplanes, Liberty. I picked up my son from MCI at about 2:00 today. I trusted Bernoulli's Law and so did he.

But my definition of faith is not that. It wasn't faith that allowed me to accept the risk of my son flying. I have no faith. I have guts. There is a difference.

Liberty275 6 years, 11 months ago

"I don't loathe agnostics. I think they are simply on a different spiritual path than I am."

I don't see it that way. Atheists and believers in gods are on a spiritual path, though the paths are different. Agnostics aren't on a path. They are sitting on a rock next to a fork in the path without the ability to choose which way to go. I see that as cowardice, although that judgment may be wrong. I don't mind being wrong. Newton, Einstein and Hawking were all wrong before I.

Nikki May 6 years, 11 months ago

Loved the article. Can't wait for more. Sounds like a cool idea. Of course, I might just think that because I like the thoughts he presented. I guess if someone says something I disagree with more, I'll see if I still like the concept. Either way, keep them coming.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 11 months ago

Great stuff. Keep this up. As for the snarks about evolution and the world of magic, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Science explains what is; religion explains what people want to believe. They can and will coexist. I seriously doubt those who still ascribe to magic really want to return to their perceived golden ages and give up all modernity, including, GASP, technology and their ability to discuss issues such as these on this Award Winning Forum.

devobrun 6 years, 11 months ago

"Science explains what is; religion explains what people want to believe." Not in today's world, Paul. Science has expanded its purview to include that which cannot be tested. Therefore it now engages in grand narratives that were the realm of magic.
Science is fully engaged in providing that which people want to believe. Just one example of many:

devobrun 6 years, 11 months ago

Further headway in the destruction of science:

Gotta love this explanation of what is, not just what people want to hear.

wowiekt08 6 years, 11 months ago

I really enjoyed this article. I've always enjoyed reading your Heard on The Hill stories because it gives me a new perspective of what is happening at KU while I am a student here. But this would be an awesome addition to the Journal-World.

So suggestions for people to interview: Dr. Steve Ilardi was my favorite professor while I was working on my undergrad. He had great stories to share in class.

I took a philosophy/medical ethics course taught by a very interesting man named Don Marquis. He had some interesting things to say about ethics, and I have a feeling he has seen a lot in his time.

Can't wait to read more!

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