Sunday, 20 February 2011

Chicken Curry, dinosaurs & Chemistry?

It was a standard busy day at the University of Manchester, combined with a swift lunch-time shuttle to the Royal Northern College of Music. Finding decent places to eat at the University is a constant quest for many academics at Manchester, thankfully there are many places from the Buisnes School to Geography were the trail for cuisine often ends in food. However, this particular day had chicken curry on the menu in the Music School, so the usual gathering of geologists from the School of Earth, Atmospheric & Environmental Sciences (SEAES) were loading their lunch trays with the said British and chips has long been knocked-off as the top favourite for some time by curry. At that time I was quite new to the said department, having just been appointed between the Manchester Museum (University of Manchester) and the SEAES. I sat at a table with one of our planetary scientists (Prof. Jamie Gilmour), an environmental geochemist (Prof. Dave Polya) and an inorganic geochemist (Prof. Roy Wogelius) was the latter who has since provided me a paradigm shift in my understandings of the preservation of dinosaurian beasties from days gone by.
Dr Roy Wogelius (foreground), Dr Peter Morris (left to Roy)
and Tyler Lyson (right)
As we sat inhaling our food, as time was short for lunch, I threw into conversation that I had just started working on a 'mummified' dinosaur. To have both the words 'mummy' and 'dinosaur' in a single sentence made all three look up and, albeit for a brief second, appear almost interested in palaeontology. I was getting used to the dry wit and humour of the three, so I waited for the barrage of quips on fossils not being what they used to be, or that the Late Cretaceous embalmers chasing dinosaurs and sticking natorn (Egyptian embalming salts!) where the sun would no longer shine! Dave Polya did not let me down on this front as he sat pondering the mechanics of inserting large quantities of salts up dinosaur rear-ends...However, Roy was sat opposite me and stopped eating, 'Do you want to know find out how the skin of your dinosaur got persevered?', Roy's question was one I had much pondered since seeing the bizarre preservation of Tyler Lyson's amazing find. 'I can help you Phil, if you can get me some samples'...this was the start of my journey into inorganic and organic geochemistry.
Fossil 'skin' from the 65 million year old dinosaur from
the Hell Creek Formation (North Dakota, USA)
I realised quite quickly that Roy had a healthy disrespect for palaeontology (or more precisely many palaeontologists)... something to do with an early college experience and a dance involving ping pong bats and an extinct group of arthropods called eurypterids. Having worked on eurypterids for my masters degree...I quickly change the subject when this experience is raised in conversation. This had clearly harmed Roy in some deep way. However, lucky for me Roy had spent the ensuing years becoming a leading geochemist. His realm of x-ray defraction, synchrotrons and infrared spectroscopy, was about to open-up the invisible sides of the electro-magnetic spectrum for me...a realm that would soon include the analysis of one dinosaurs particularly tough hide from late Cretaceous North Dakota. Since the 'Chicken Curry' moment in 2006, Roy has helped open Pandora's taphonomic box...taphonomy literally meaning 'burial-laws'..a science that we are beginning to play a small part in translating fossils into the processes that lay behind their preservation.

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