Monday, 21 February 2011

Dr Scott, Dr Phil and the Orange T. rex

Today I had the pleasure of giving a public lecture at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. Little could have prepared me for the teeming hordes of 4-7 year olds clambering past and over each other to gain a glimpse, or maybe even a touch of the sacred hide of a rather fluffed-up orange T., this was not a mad dream, but the telle-tubby-like reality that was 'The Dinosaur Train'.

I snuck into the back of the lecture theatre where I would give my talk in an hour. I was met by a packed auditorium listening to Dr Scott Sampson talking dinosaurs. Dr Scott is a real 'Dr' of palaeontology..a well-respected and extensively published scientist...who took the leap, like myself, into the world of the media. I choose documentaries with National Geographic, the History Channel and the good old BBC, Dr Scott choose pre-school TV...brave Dr Scott. However, we both choose public engagement in science as a major part of our careers. His scientific work truly rocks, but I think even he was surprised at the size of his audience...most were under 3 feet in height. With a maximum average height of 3'6''...the tales of nesting raptors and the important message that birds were dinosaurs was being swamped by the mutual diminutive wish that a 5'4'' orange T. rex going by the name of 'Buddy'...would soon join the erstwhile host of the said show...our friend Dr Scott.

I stood mesmerized at the back of the auditorium. Dr Scott valiantly pushed-on with his talk as the excited chatter of 'where's Buddy', gradually increased in volume among the expectant crowd. From a cracked door in the corner of the auditorium I'm sure I spotted a nervous human-head poking out of the top of a bloated orange dinosaur body...that was about to be fitted with a bizarrely enlarged theropod dinosaur head, complete with bulging eyes...I was not sure if this was a function of the fear levels being felt by the incumbent of the said costume. Having worn such a dino-outfit myself back in my Yorkshire Museum days, I was well aware of the kicking, pushing, thumping, dino-tipping antics of children...and their parents. I would just like to point out to all parents out there, that when a dino-suit wearing person is kicked over and is lain helpless on their backs, it does not look cute and is definitely NOT a photo-opportunity.

As Dr Scott summed-up his lecture to the listening parents, he hailed the coming of his good friend, Buddy. Huge gasps and screams were let-out by the waiting throng as the giant soft-toy gingerly entered the theatre...was that a timid step back towards the entrance? My heart went-out to the orange velour-clad student who had clearly been assured that this 'event' would look great on their CV...but maybe without the picture. You can imagine the line in the said CV, 'I took part in a major palaeontology open day at the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, where I actively engaged with children from many areas of the City'... beats saying, 'I dressed-up as an orange T. rex and was chased around the building by thousands of screaming, over-excited kids'.

As the teaming hoard ebbed slowly from the room, I'm sure I heard Buddy scream for the said dumpy-dinosaur was chased to the upper floors of the building by never-ending tide of kids. Every now and then a staff walkie-talkie would report on Buddy's current location...the hunt for the orange T. rex was merciless!

I looked down at computer screens and at the content of my lecture. Then I looked-up at the audience. I looked back down again at my lecture and realised that the 'Dinosaur Train' had cut my usual expert audience of 9 year olds to a mixture of toddlers, confused parents and exhausted Academy staff. My title of 'Blasting dinosaurs into another dimension'...and more importantly the content of my lecture... suddenly looked impossibly difficult. My slide of an atom, with its simple nucleus and careless orbiting electrons, now looked like quantum mechanics... and my birds-eye view of a synchrotron...might as well have been the blue-print for space ship design a long way away in the dim and distant future. I hastily re-wrote my talk in my head and looked at how much stage space there was for Monty-Python style silly walks...this would be a short 45 minute talk...more like 30 minutes!

I was introduced to the expectant audience. The lecture theatre lights dimmed, I took a deep breath...and stepped into the jaws of a battle-ship grey T. rex...bring back Buddy...I might just need him!

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.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Sunlight and Synchrotrons

The snow has started to melt. The temperature is beginning to rise above freezing in Philadelphia for the first time in weeks. Leaves are starting to shoot and the grass is turning from rust-brown back to green. The organic geochemistry of life is re-booting for Spring. Sunlight is doing its job on these new shoots, fuelling the photosynthetic pathways that convert carbon dioxide into carbs...sunlight is a powerful source for the essence of life, energy.

Palaeontology has also started using light, in ways that I would never have guessed early in my career. We too are relying upon an interaction with light, but not with sunlight and plant chlorophyl, but with the surface of beautifully preserved fossils and more invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Todays blog I thought I might bring-up the subject of a more familier part of the electromagnetic spectrum to many of us, X-rays. For many, their first interaction with X-rays is not a pleasant hospitals tend to come to mind, along with broken limbs! However, since September 2007 I have been getting used to another, more intense source of X-rays...those generated by synchrotron radiation. The synchrotron at which my group and I work is based at Stanford University (California) and is called the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
SLAC from the air
You may recall in an earlier blog I was working crazy hours (20+ days) along with the rest of the Manchester team, basting fossils with X-rays...this was at SLAC. Here synchrotron light (in our case X-rays) are generated when electrons traveling near the speed of light take a curved path around a storage ring (above left red ring on aerial shot of SLAC). The particles blasting around the storage ring emit electromagnetic light in X-ray through infrared wavelengths. The resulting light beam has characteristics that make it ideal for revealing the intricate architecture and composition of many kinds of matter—in our case fossils!
See Bergmann et al 2010 in PNAS for more gorgeous images!
The elemental composition of fossils and the matrix in which they sit can be spatially resolved to ridiculous levels of accuracy here at SLAC. Our team works closely with Dr Uwe Bergman (no less than Deputy Director of the SLAC facility) who helps our team recover these delicate chemical fossils from past eons. Lest we not forget, we are a bag of SLAC, we can start to unpick the remnants of this chemistry that has survived through the sands (muds and limestones) of time.
Synchrotron sheds light on 150 million year old feather biomolecules!
Fortunately for palaeontology (and also the oil industry) the organic building blocks of life can sometimes be stubborn. They do not like breaking down. One such major group of molecules that form the backbone of many organic molecules, goes by the name of functional groups.These groups of atoms are responsible for much of the reactivity of a given molecule as it plays its part in the processes of life. It is these potential 'biomarkers' from deep time that we are so interested in hunting down and mapping in fossils. In my next blog we will take closer look at these chemical flight-recorders...with both x-rays and infrared light. To do this, we will enter the inorganic and organic world of my good colleagues Dr Roy Wogelius and Dr Bart van Dongen from the University of Manchester.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Teasing organic molecules from fossils

This last couple of weeks have been a tad busy...just for a change. A series of papers to complete, review and submit, coupled with meetings at the University of Manchester, entailing a rapid hop over the Atlantic (and yes, you all know how much I 'love' flying). Today, once again, I am sat back in my office at the University of Pennsylvania, watching my 2nd Mac start to splutter as it renders a 3D volume of a T. rex brain case from a micro CT you do. I think I might just have pushed the poor machine a little too far this time, as its been nearly two hours since it started rendering the said volume and its still not responding. This is why I have two Mac's. One to continue working upon, while the other works by itself...slowly, so has a morning shadow by the time it is done thinking about a problem. That said, it works, but you need patience!

While my 2nd Mac is stumbling its way through thousands of T. rex brain-case slice data, my other is being a little more organic. I have been burying myself into the fun world of organic geochemistry... please keep reading! As if it wasn't for the organic chemistry popping away inside of you, you would not be reading this. However, I have to ask, Why subject myself to such wondrous delights? Its quite simply the only way I can continue to work with my colleagues Dr Roy Wogelius and Dr Bart van Dongen (both at the University of Manchester). They have both been giving me a crash course, these past four years, on the organic and inorganic phases of life...a balance that exists now and into deep time. It seems that if I really want to get to grips with my fossils, I have to know my hopanoids from my geo-hopanes (I assure you that these are not medical conditions associated with digging dinosaurs) and also my FTIR from my Py-GCMS....not to mention your MALDI-TOF (now I'm sure that one should be a cocktail?).
Bart van Dongen hard at work with his Py-GCMS samples!
Over the next few weeks I shall start sticking some of our latest results on these pages, as thankfully we got another paper accepted on soft tissue preservation today...hurrah! Each paper published in a journal is a big step forward for our group, given the techniques we use are quite new to the field of palaeontology, making the review process long in some circumstances. With this in mind, I thought I might dare drag one and all into the fun world of methods, machinery and chemistry that orbits on planet organic...I might even drag vital life processes into the debate, such as help ease the transition into this tricky field. More importantly, you will soon see that fossils are organic mines that we are only just learning how to excavate. I would never have believed that when I was a 7 year old plucking my first fossil from the ground, that I would one day be as interested in the chemistry of the said lump.