Monday, 17 May 2010

Trains, dead birds and baseball?

This past week I have been working between New York and Philadelphia, courtesy of the United Nations and Amtrak. The wonderful thing about being on the eastern seaboard is that public transport still exists. I recall asking where the nearest train station was when in darkest South Dakota, only to be met with a blank expression, with the suggestion that I look in the 19th Century for my nearest station. The great railroads of ‘Casey Jones’ seem to be a distant memory in the mid-west, creating a vast disconnect between much of the east and west of the USA. The wonderful thing about Philadelphia, it is slap bang between Washington DC and New York City, making many of my meetings, lectures and work a simple train ride via Amtrak. The train service is surprisingly clean, efficient and functional...three words rarely associated with public transport in the UK. Travelling by Amtrak is the closest I have come to an airline experience, firmly grounded on terra firma and without the dreaded turbulence! Its nice to think that volcanic ash would have a tough time delaying Amtrak.

My work at the UN entailed attending meetings regarding sustainability and the management of Earth’s resources…a sobering session! For the past two years I have be involved with the International Year of Planet Earth (IYPE), trying to help spread the word of sustainability and Earth resources to as wide an audience as possible. My part has been tiny, compared to that many working in the organization, especially Ed de Mulder who is currently pushing for a sustainable legacy from the IYPE, The Planet Earth Institute. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how the education system has failed natural sciences, given our lack of understanding of the environment and resources that we so carelessly use and often abuse. I’m not one for getting on my ‘soap-box’ and preaching about how we should conduct our day to day lives, but when it comes to Earth resources, we tend to be as dumb as a piece of wood when ‘managing’ them. I have to admit that while the IYPE opened my eyes to the mismanagement of Earth resources, it also gave me hope that there is a band of folks out there working hard to bring about change….I step-down from my soap-box!

In Philadelphia I gave a quick presentation on ‘Deconstructing Dinosaurs’ at the Vet School this week. My talk was an attempt to reflect on the work of my colleagues and I, from the fields of palaeontology to the subatomic world of particle physics! The paper publish last Tuesday in PNAS took a very close look with 21st Century technology at an old bird, more than 150 million years old…Archaeopteryx.

Archaeopteryx is often included by many palaeontologists in their Top 10 list of iconic fossils. The research undertaken in our study might breathe new life into these prehistoric bones, permitting us for the first time to map the chemical remains delicate structures, suc as the feather shafts. Finely detailed preservation of the composition of Archaeopteryx was shown in remarkable X-ray images that had never been recognized before. This was the same animal that helped ignite the debate on Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection. Half-bird (complete with feathers and wishbone) and half reptile (with teeth, wing-fingers tipped with claws and long bony tail), this fossil represents all that many think of as a ‘missing-link’ or a species frozen in time between two evolutionary steps. I paraphrased this to the press, suggesting it was as if someone had shoved a crocodile up the backside of a bird….I hate it when the press quote me verbatim! The techniques applied in our study will not only have implications for understanding more about this famous fossil, but all of ancient life. This application of 21st Century technology has allowed us to observe and map structures that up until now have been invisible. The implications for palaeontology, biology, forensics and many other fields are huge.

The collaborative research team, featuring scientists from the University of Manchester and the United States’ Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, reported these new findings on the most complete existing specimens of Archaeopteryx. The said fossil was loaned for analysis from the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. Archaeopteryx are so very rare (only 10 specimens and a single feather have been discovered) but still they occupy a pivotal place in the development of Darwinian theory. Despite their importance, no comprehensive study of the chemistry of these fossils has ever been completed, until now :-)

This research was able to complete this task by harnessing a state-of-the-art technique for the analysis of large specimens developed at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center(SLAC) called Synchrotron Rapid Scanning - X-ray Fluorescence (SRS-XRF). Up until now, palaeontologists had thought that the critically important feathers visible in this fossil were simply impressions of

the feathers, with no original chemistry remaining. Using SRS-XRF to accurately map the locations of major and trace elements such as sulfur, phosphorous, copper, and zinc, our team discovered that traces of the original chemistry of the Archaeopteryx feathers were still present.

Other results showed that the chemistry of the bones from this 150 million year old bird relative were similar to the concentrations that one would find most living birds, providing a chemical link between this ancient organism and descendant species such as pigeons, parakeets, and seagulls. The sensitivity of this technique also revealed details of the curation history of the specimen, showing how small parts were “repaired” and were not original to the fossil itself. The new technique has the potential to unleash the secrets of chemical fossils locked in the sands of time, only visible to the x-ray vision provided by synchrotron light sources.

After such a busy week, I’m ready for a first ever baseball game! Tonight, weather permitting (gosh, this is so like the UK) I hope to see the Phillies take on the Pirates...I had no idea that sport could be such swashbuckling fun!

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Phil in Philadelphia

Each time I'm on the final approach to Philadelphia International airport, the distinctive skyline of the city and the snake-like meanderings of the Schuylkill river signify I'm about to touch-down on terra firma. Given that I have never been a fan of flying, this cheers me up greatly. This past year has had my travels drag me between pillar and post, carving out a carbon footprint of a small country. I am really not proud of this. Occasionally I find myself day-dreaming of bygone days when an Atlantic crossing by ship was the most efficient passage to North America. The idea of idling away long days onboard a vast liner, in the absence of email, internet and the 21st Century, is most appealing. The bump of touchdown abruptly reminded me of my dislike of flying and once more I was wading my way through a plane load of folks intent on not missing connections. I felt lucky that we were in Philadelphia at all, not from my unreasonable fear of flying, but for a geological force of nature to be reckoned with.

The Icelandic Volcano that has recently been causing chaos in UK airspace provided a short window for the take-off of my flight to the USA. I was grateful for this, as I had a lecture to deliver at Penn on the next day. The said volcano, often referred to by the media as 'the volcano with the unpronounceable name' had once again started spewing ash into a northwester bound for UK shores, but thankfully a gentle blast from the Urals sent the ash cloud spinning back into the Atlantic. The volcano has occasionally be named Eyjafjallajökull, but alas...the media missed the fact that this translates from Icelandic to 'Island-mountain-glacier'....whoops! The glacier sits atop of what appears to be a volcano with no name. The last time the volcano with 'no name' blew its top was from 1821 till 1823....but this was sporadic series of eruptions and the absence of any air-traffic had the event pass with little attention. Its curious how suddenly we can be so interested in historical eruptions, now that we have to deal with a wakening force of nature in the 21st Century.

Having spent last month hiking up and down the volcano Mount Tiede in Tenerife (off the coast of Western Sahara), I already had a healthy respect for these splendid reminders from the Earth, that we only think we can control nature. Occasionally, the Earth sighs and we all feel the repercussions.

I'm grateful that the volcano with no name did not disrupt my journey....but I would be untruthful if I did not admit that volcanic dust and jet engines were not engraved on my thoughts as I took off from Manchester!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Twas the night before teaching...and all was quiet.

Teaching is one of the major perks of working at a University...honest! It is possibly the most rewarding work that I undertake in a year. However, just like when you on the final pages of a great book...there is often a tinge of regret at the end-point of any teaching programme. Tomorrow is a little unusual, as this will be the last day I teach for a little over a year at Manchester; a function of my sabbatical. Whilst I still have the delights of grading all the exam scripts for this and other courses on which I teach, tomorrow is a big day. The course in question, Vertebrate Palaeontology & Evolution, is one of my favourites to teach...although the field courses in South Devon and Tenerife are a VERY close second and third. In the field, nothing beats asking a student to taste some mud. When first asked to do this, you get a strange look, which usually turns to disgust as you demonstrate the chewing of the mud. But how else can you tell if you have a silt or mudstone in the field! Whether it be field or lecture-based teaching, this was the reason I wanted to work in a University. So, when 1pm GMT chimes tomorrow, I will not teach formally in Manchester for some time...but, there are always the public lectures and conferences to keep me ticking over for the next year.

The next year will mainly concentrate on research goals, whilst also trying to promote the public engagement in science....a hat that I also enjoy wearing. While I feel lucky to work in the field of palaeontology, I'm always on the look-out for converts to the study of long dead beasties. It's great to hold a fossil up to a class or bemused high-school kids and talk about how stunningly gorgeous the gob-smacking object is that I'm holding ...they are often not sure whether to look at the said fossil or check for their nearest point of exit from the room...usually both.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

A year chasing particles?

Welcome to the wonderful world of long dead things and how they still have a major impact on many folks lives, not least my own. I have been a palaeontologist for long enough to know better, but persist in digging, preparing, analysing and trying to make sense of the disjointed sentences that the fossil record provides us. My Name is Phil Manning, I work as a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) at the University of Manchester and as a Research Fellow in The Manchester Museum. I also have the vast pleasure of working with Professor Peter Dodson at the University of Pennsylvania as a Visiting Scholar. My work at Manchester and Penn is augmented with several visits a year to Stanford University (SSRL and SLAC), where I work with a team of scientists, including Dr Roy Wogelius and Dr Uwe Bergman...chaps so clever, you can cut yourself on them. The odd trip to Patagonia, China, Canada, Germany, Spain...and many other destinations keep the fossil fuel supplied for my science.

Over the next few months you will join me on my
travels, as I have decided to use my sabbatical to expose myself to the fun world of particle physics and geochemistry. Why? I hear you all be honest, I am a little nervous answering. I realize that this is indeed a quantum leap for any palaeontologist to take, but it is one I am willing to make, as there are many secrets that this new research world has to offer to my own subject. The last five years has already been a baptism of fire for me, bouncing between biology, physics, engineering, computational robotics, FTIR, MALDI-TOF... to name but a few subjects (some sounding more like dinner cocktails!) that I have tried getting to grips with.... I'm quite dizzy!
This past year has also been a tad frantic. I have just done filming a new series for the National Geographic Channel ('Jurassic CSI') and am currently playing catch-up with my own research group...who are as productive as ever. The trick is....I have to start being as productive as they are! A year on the road chasing new fossil finds and playing with spanking-new techniques in the field has been great fun, but I am now faced with a pile of data that needs dissecting, analysing and interpreting. Bugger! Much has already been done, thanks to the many folks who consist the Manchester Palaeontology Research Group. However, as always there is still much to do. As the year progresses, you will see many publications from our Manchester can read about the pain we go through getting to publication in these pages....the slings and arrows of peer review are painful, but necessary.

If anything, by the end of 2010, I hope you will agree with me that palaeontology is far from a 19th Century science. Never let it be said that palaeontology is about 'dusty old fossils', as I by studying these ancient remain with 21st Century science, we discover there's a bit life in the old bones yet. Its not so much what sort of fossil you have, but what you do with it! The beautiful hindsight that the fossil record provides from the death, war, famine and pestilence of lost worlds is there for the taking....if we can just tease it from the grip of the sands of time! for the space shuttles, all will become clear as mud over the ensuing blog!