Thursday, 22 July 2010

Preparing for the field!

At last! Something that might interest folks who happen upon these pages. The summer field season is upon us and we’re headed to the interior of the USA… soon! Digging-up dinosaurs is one of the main reasons I eat, sleep and inhale palaeontology. The vast expanse of Lower Cretaceous aged, Hell Creek Badlands in South Dakota is one of the finest dino-bone-bearing horizons in the world… possibly a function of an enigmatic ‘inhabitant’ of this slice of time, Tyrannosauris rex.

This year’s field team throws together a diverse bunch of folks who bring many years of the skills, sweat, toil and tears that is fieldwork. The team consists yours truly, Bill Sellers (University of Manchester), Victoria Egerton (Drexel University), Jason Schein (Drexel University & New Jersey State Museum), Jason Poole (Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.) and Eric Morschhauser (University of Pennsylvania). Among us, we have dug dead beasties on almost every continent and in some pretty odd places. We have hung from cliffs by rope in Spain, dangled in caves in China, abseiled in Argentina, dribbled through deserts of Mongolia and slipped on beach beds of Blighty. Now it is time to hunt dinosaur in the Badlands.

But why Badlands, well as a friend of mine once said, ‘they’re not so bad, just misunderstood’. Having spent a few field seasons squelching around in the delights of gumbo after rain to the more commonplace dusty buttes of North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota…I have learned to love this region. This year, we’re headed to South Dakota again…where exactly? Well, that would be telling!

The Badlands are quite beautiful in a vast, unpopulated sort of way. Whilst Montana holds its own as the ‘Big Sky’ state, I feel both North and South Dakota are its twin, as combined they have a ‘Bigger Sky’, albeit divided by their North & South state line. This is a part of the world where night-out or a visit round the corner to the local store, equates to 10’s of 100+ mile drives through vast tracts of prairie, dipping in and out of Badlands. The gentle curved landscape is punctuated by stubborn buttes raising their backs above the prairie, often displaying the interbedded muds and sands that signify a potential trip to Hell……Creek.

Its hard to describe the distances you can travel off-road, before seeing any evidence of human habitation…bar the odd ranchers fence and dirt track…that often becomes a river bed. The 77,121 square miles of South Dakota could fit England and Wales inside with room to spare, but with a total population of no more than Derbyshire (~800,000)….but the latter has a mere 1,000 square miles to squeeze folks in…but is still seen as the quintessential unpopulated English countryside. When South Dakota is compared to Manhattan Island with its 22.9 square miles hosting 1.6 million folks, suddenly city living seems very claustrophobic… New Yorkers live in the land of the ‘Slot Sky’, pinched between skyscrapers…or it is just a thick neon veneer on a new skyscraper?

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Writers block………the main problem with this is…is…is

My blog has been somewhat neglected this past month…a function of research…something that has been hard to pursue to an end-point this past year, given my travels, but is now biting at my shirt-tails to be completed on several fronts. The outputs of most folks in academia are usually split between teaching and research. To find a balance between the two is tricky, but when I can, I try and combine them both. The many members of the palaeontology research group who often drive the research part of my work, keep me on my toes. I am lucky that I operate with such a diverse and talented bunch of folks…we all do our part and all work towards the same goals.

However, the joy that is writing academic papers never ceases to extract all remnant of what is left of my soul into a small vial and blasts it to some painful dimension. Undertaking the research can be breathtakingly exciting, but piecing your evidence into the context of 50+ years of research can often be daunting. This can be compounded by the realization that you are not alone….not in an X-Files kind of way, but in a…your being stalked, kind of way. At every bump, bend and turn in research you are aware of other folks working on similar, if not identical, material, also trying to squeeze some new drop of science from the same or similar sample(s), distilled to a written piece of work.

There is some solace to this diabolical and quite unnecessary race. Thankfully we all think in very different ways. One mans meat is another mans protein and intramuscular fat with carbs! When some researchers fear that another group is looking over their shoulder at the same thing, they ‘must’ also have the same results and conclusions…this is very, very unlikely. To quote good old Dawkins, it’s akin to throwing several tonnes of scrap metal into the air and it self-assembles on landing into a Boeing 737. Sadly this is compounded by the many journals who, when you finally submit your refined labours, have ‘seen this work before’ giving your paper cursory glance (if you are lucky!). Or, if you are really lucky and a paper gets to be peer-reviewed, then often comes biggest kick in the proverbial’s… ‘this paper is of not wide enough interest to the public’. This meritocracy has its gatekeepers. However, one thing is for certain, we all play by the same rule….I hope!

So, why do we torture ourselves over such trifles…well, its hopefully because we are all working to push the boundaries of science.