The Atlantic

19th-Century Paleontology Was at the Forefront of Big Data

From paper databases to digital analyses, the field's transformation holds lessons for AI and machine learning.
Source: George Steinmetz / Getty

In 1981, when I was 9 years old, my father took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. Although I had to squint my eyes during some of the scary scenes, I loved it in particular because I was fairly sure that Harrison Ford’s character was based on my dad. My father was a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, and I’d gone on several field trips with him to the Rocky Mountains, where he seemed to transform into a rock-hammer-wielding superhero.

That illusion was shattered some years later when I figured out what he actually did: Far from spending his time climbing dangerous cliffs and digging up dinosaurs, Jack Sepkoski spent most of his career in front of a computer, building what would become the first comprehensive on the fossil

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