Sunday, 29 July 2012

Preparing to dig some fossil fuel!

Fossils literally fuel the science of palaeontology. This beautifully preserved resource allows us to touch deep into the past lives of plants and animals. The way we excavate, prepare, conserve and curate fossils is changing. As we begin to undertand more about the importance of the chemical ghosts lurking in fossils (see my earlier posts on our synchrotron-based imaging work). We have realised that by handling, gluing and conserving fossils, we might inadvertently be damaging important chemical sentences that tell stories of past biology, preservation and environments.

This year, I shall mainly be wearing rubber in the field...of the latex glove variety! My plastic sample bags will be replaced with glass vials and autoclaved aluminium foil (when chemical samples are sought). While this is impractical for whole skeletons, there is always sufficient material to collect as smaller samples.

A major drawback of my new field 'wardrobe'...latex gloves in 100+ Fahrenheit will not be much fun!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Hmm, that’s funny…

This is not a great time to be writing grants for palaeontology or for that matter, any other fields of science. Writing grants is something I seem to be doing plenty of these past few years. However, funding seems a tad thin on the ground currently... especially when studying things beneath it... the ground that is. In the last few years I have spent much time justifying to those who ask, the funding that I receive to support the research that we undertake. I am often asked, ‘what is the relevance of your [my] work to everyday life?’ What might surprise many of you to hear is that this is a fair question to ask for all science.

Possibly the toughest thing to explain to any potential funder or to those who ask that wonderfully simple question ‘Why?’ is the potential for discoveries that one has not yet made. While research might offer to solve a simple equation, refine our knowledge of a missing link or maybe resolve a complex interaction of an enzyme that regulates a biosynthetic pathway; we still have to 'estimate' our outcomes. Some results might be predicted correctly (but still need repeating to be considered science), whilst others may yield tangential results offering more questions than answers. In many cases these new questions had not been thought of before, until that particular new avenue, technique or result transpired. The reality of almost all research is that scientists are looking for answers, but can rarely predict the absolute final outcomes of an experiment or line of research. This is why many key areas of science still require funding, as the answers generated always breed new questions, which could not be asked without the hindsight of discovery. A line of new questions can often be worth more than a volume of elegant answers. It might be fair to say that science rarely originates from a linear process of thought and experimentation, but more from an evolutionary process of chance and dare I say...luck. As the great Isaac Asimov once said, 'The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'

Such serendipitous science is difficult for funding agencies to predict, evaluate and judge… the same could be said for the scientists who seek the funding. The assessment of an application for funds can only be based upon the scientific merit of a proposed research programme, this supported by the track record and/or prior outputs of the scientists applying for funds. However, when the funding ‘pool’ becomes shallow, the criterion for assessment often tightens and then 'core' areas of science are favored above more 'blue-skies' disciplines (a term that many scientists hate!). This is usually tough on research areas close to my heart...such as palaeontology.

So, what is the point I am trying to make in this posting...well, while palaeontology is firmly anchored in the past, the outputs from such antediluvian research extends to understanding the burial of waste (both biological and nuclear) in deep time through to the internal force environment of bones (both extant and extinct), not to mention the potential for using extinct life form in future design (palaeo-biomimetics)...and there are many more outputs that are to numerous to recount. My point is simple; it was difficult to predict the tangential developments that palaeontology research has already made...let alone the future research and indirect spin-offs that might be generated from this wonderfully multidisciplinary field. One thing is very clear; the fossil record provides unique hindsight to the processes and patterns of life through deep time. Climate change, extinction events, disease and famine have left their indelible mark on the fossil record…it would be useful for science to keep unpicking such information, so we might better understand comparable events impacting life on Earth today…

…so, I had better finish writing the three grants that currently sit on my desktop.

Friday, 13 July 2012

The Palaeontologists: An Adventure with Scientists

Some of you might have recently watch Nick Park's latest animated movie at the cinema, The Pirates: An adventure with Scientists. The basic plot has a pirate captain with his trusty Dodo for his the same vain that Manuel on Fawlty Towers had  pet hamster (aka, the rat). The Dodo is recognised by Chales Darwin, who then proceeds to capture the said flightless bird...thought to be the last of its kind. Queen Victoria also enters the chase, but is intent on broiling and eating the said beastie...that is the Dodo and not Darwin. Darwin's goal was simpler, to display his beloved prize at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, an event that has been running since before the real Darwin plucked his first pigeon. A week after we completed our own exhibition at the Royal Society, has given time for the team to reflect on the splendid event.
Roy, Phil, Pete, Bart, Holly & Victoria at the Royal Society...with a slightly dead bird!
The exhibit that we built for the Royal Society reviewed our work on the synchrotron-based imaging of pigment in the fossil record...sadly not a Dodo. However, much of our work has focussed on unpicking the plumage patterns and pigments of primitive birds from the Jurassic (Archaeopteryx) and Cretaceous (Confuciusornis and Gansus). The techniques that we deploy have enabled us to identify and define key chemical biomarkers for pigments that domiate plumage, skin and hair colour...not to mention many other tissue types in the animal and plant kingdoms.

Like many free public exhibitions, the Royal Society Summer Exhibition was busy from the minute the doors opened each morning at 10am till the last punter was gently persuaded to leave the premises at 9pm. We realised that our stand attracted attention both from the science it portrayed but also from the objects we displayed...fossils are simply beautiful and ours were no exception to this rule. Every time I see or touch a fossil, it transports me back in time to the multiple 'worlds' that have evolved, waxed and waned through the history of life on Earth. Fossils provide critical insight to the evolution of life on Earth, but it is their residual chemistry that holds so much more information on their biology and preservation environments.
The long standing paradigm that explained the preservation of plant or animal tissues was governed by mineralisation. Fossils were inert shells, long devoid of life. The resultant fossil was thought a mere echo of the original tissues, with little thought being given to the preservation of original (endogenous) elements and compounds that were metabolised and constructed when the tissue was still alive. The analytical techniques being applied to palaeontology over the last 10 years have seen the fragility of this paradigm. Our work presented at the Royal Society Exhibition surprised many visitors that we could resolve biological compounds from 120 million year old birds...first synthesised by life in the early Cretaceous, but imaged by us in the 21st Century. It was fun to point out to visitors at the exhibit that we are quite willing to accept the preservation of organic molecules that fuel our world today...hydrocarbons can be considered as simple leaks in the carbon are fossils.
As the team and I work in the beam hutch at the Diamond synchrotron today, we continue to tease the very molecules of life from the sands of time. This is no easy task and can only be achieved using 21st Century technology...but hopefully, we will get a chance to exhibit of latest findings at future public exhibitions that show how beautiful science can be....even without the aid of a Dodo!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Diamond shines brighter than a million suns....

Diamond is the UK's newest synchrotron radiation lightsource. This is where the Manchester team finds itself this week, working at beam-line i18...once again, bathing fossils with intense synchrotron light. The experiment will take us through the weekend and into the beginning of next week...once again we step into the world of sleep depravation, no sunlight (but that is normal, as we are in the UK). We finally got here last night...or should I say, this we pulled into the facility accommodation at 3am, after leaving Manchester a little later than planned. This is a rather busy time of year.

Our beam hutch, where the experiment takes place, is relatively huge, when compared to many such facilities. We now have to learn how to navigate the multitude of buttons, levers, and shutters that operate the experimental station. All good fun...but hard when sleep-deprived. The experimental hutch is so large, we have to check it for any hidden people or minor continents before we shut the 'barn-door' on any experiment.

Once the experimental hutch is sealed, interlocked and safe, we can then open-up the shutter that permits intense X-rays to flood our sample. If light were water, this is akin to the Pacific Ocean being blasted with some 'Star-Trek-like' force through a pinhole. The resultant beam excites the electronic shells of each atom with which it interacts...en-LIGHTNING us with a fluorescent yield that is diagnostic to each element. This is when we start watching, line by line, as an image slowly starts to form on the true Rolf Harris style, we all ask 'Do you know what it is yet?'... as we scan each 40 micron slice over the fossil. The distinct elemental signature of each sample tells a wonderful story of life, biosynthetic pathways, burial, preservation and above all chemistry. This story can only be unpicked using such a vast resource as Diamond.

As the experiment begins to run, we all wonder what new insight the results might provide into our world of Applied Palaeontology and Chemical Ghosts...

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Dinosaurs are sexy!

Yes, its official...dinosaurs are sexy! This past week at the Royal Society has been a very positive sort of way. It seems the public really cannot get enough of matters paleontological, especially when peppered with a liberal dose of particle physics. We did not even need a 'God Particle' on our 'higgs-boson-free' exhibit to convince kids that dinosaurs & particle physics were cool...and the their decedents the birds are even cooler.

Quentin Cooper of Radio 4's Material World dropped by our exhibit. You can hear our interview on this link that took place on the 5th of July. As you will hear...we were very, very busy! By the end of the week, our feet ached and our voices were mere whispers. It is quite possible that we achieved our goal of explaining to kids that palaeontology is about more than just a bunch of bearded folks sat at the bottom of a muddy hole, playing with fossil bones...although this may well be a fair description of me in a few weeks time. Our exhibit owes its design and production to Dr Victoria Egerton, who worked closely with me on this fun project. We hope to tour this exhibit in the if you have a science fair or festival that fancies some relativistic fossils, drop me a line.

After rushing back to Manchester on Sunday evening through the UK Summer monsoon, we arrived in a rain-drenched Manchester...but the same can be said for most of the UK this year. It has rained so hard, the hose-pipe ban has been we can all happily water our gardens this week...thats if they have not been washed away already.

I hope to broadcast a lecture on this blog later this week. One I intend to film at the spanking new Diamond Synchrotron Lightsource, near Oxford. This splendid facility is opening its doors to the Manchester team later this week, as we have some rather awesome fossils to gently tweak with a light brighter than a million suns. All in a days work!