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“I Date Older Women”

Jim Aronson3.jpgThe Scarlett Johansson movie Lucy is in theaters at the moment, and the film refers several times to the female Australopithecus afarensis, the putative first human, discovered several decades ago in Ethiopia, whose age was determined to be over three million years. A little reading was in order.

It turns out that Lucy’s age was estimated using samples recovered and methods refined by recently retired Professor of Earth Sciences Jim Aronson. No less an authority than Wikipedia reports:

Lucy Skeleton.jpgThe Lucy fossil was dated reliably in 1990-1992 by applying the argon-argon radiometric dating method to the volcanic ash surrounding it. Initial attempts were made in 1974 to estimate the age of the fossil using the potassium-argon radiometric dating method in James Aronson’s laboratory at CWRU, now moved to Dartmouth. These efforts by Maurice Taieb and Aronson were hindered by the scarcity of datable crystals, the fact that the volcanic rocks in the area of concern were chemically altered or reworked, and the complete absence of pumice clasts at Hadar. Lucy’s skeleton occurs in the part of the Hadar sequence that accumulated with the fastest rate of deposition, which partly accounts for her excellent preservation. The older ash was about 18 m below the fossil and the younger ash only 1 m below, closely indicating her age of deposition.

Fieldwork at Hadar was suspended in the winter of 1976-1977. When it resumed thirteen years later in 1990, the more precise argon-argon technology had been improved by Derek York from the University of Toronto. In 1990-1992, two suitable samples of ash found by Aronson and Robert Walter [Aronson’s 1980 PhD student, and long-time research colleague] were argon-argon dated by Walter at 3.22 and 3.18 million years in the geochronology laboratory of the Institute of Human Origins.

Note: the field photo above of the various recovered parts of Lucy’s skeleton was taken by Jim in 1974.

A story goes that back in the day, when Jim was asked his occupation, he would reply, “I date older women.”

Addendum: Curiously enough, when Jim retired two months ago, the praise that he received at the faculty meeting elided his professional achievements:

Aronson came to Dartmouth as a research professor in the Department of Earth Sciences in 1998, and has been a dedicated and active member of the department, as both a teacher and a contributor to departmental business, throughout his relatively short time at the College, said Associate Professor W. Brian Dade, chair of the Department of Earth Sciences.

“Jim is warmly regarded by not only his departmental colleagues, but as well by a generation of Dartmouth earth science majors for his breadth of knowledge of all things geological, as well as his upbeat personality, humility, natural curiosity, and his endearingly nonlinear thought process,” Dade said.

Dade said in Aronson, the idea that a person encompasses all the stages of their life experience is especially evident.

“In a single conversation, he could be an absent-minded professor wondering where he parked his car, a gray-beard sage sharing hard-won wisdom, a mature student of nature with the inquiring mind and vigor of a mid-career scientist at the peak of his powers, or an exuberant child experiencing things for the first time with wonder and amazement,” Dade said.

Someone should have done better homework. Isn’t Dartmouth a research university in all but name?

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