I’m always afraid to write about science because I don’t think I am any good at communicating it. I sometimes can be like that dreary secondary school Integrated Science teacher that has the gift of sending people to sleep just by opening her mouth. Plus, I tend to get the impression that people (well, Nigerians) are generally uninterested. But it’s my blog, so deal with it.
Palaeontology is the study of old dead things. It is not a construct of the creators of the television series, Friends. Scientists actually do this for a living, and I am studying to become one of them. When I look at the fossil remains, examine their intricate detail and try to figure out what exactly the creature in my hand is, sometimes I feel like a detective. I suppose I am one – well, a trainee. Studying palaeontology is like being on CSI, but the fatalities you study are not people who were stabbed to death a mere few hours ago. You investigate individuals that met their fate millions and hundreds of millions of years ago, before humans dreamed of existing. In fact, I find my studies to be rather humbling. I can’t help but be in awe of the scale and diversity of life that has ever existed before me and will ever exist after me. These fossils have a way of putting me in my place, making me understand that I am tinier than a speck of dust in the grand scale of things.
On arrival at the scene, you get your notebook out and record what you see and what the present surroundings are like. Then you search, take loads of photos and collect samples. You do exactly the same things police investigators would do – brushing and scraping, microscopy, x-ray scans, modelling, and so much more. You compare your findings with similar cases and the conclusions those investigators made. You try to figure out what the remains are and what kind of life the creatures might have had. Where did they live? How did they live? What did they like to eat? What was their last meal before death? When you answer these questions about your fossilised fatalities, then you can somehow work out what the surrounding environment used to be like when they were alive. From fossils and the rocks they are found in, you discover that the UK used to be a hot tropical paradise, or that Africa, India, South America, Australia and Antarctica all used to be one big continent.
Why would anyone want to study things that are long gone? Well, for one, without palaeontology there would be no Jurassic Park. But what’s even more important, without understanding the past – where we came from – we will never appreciate where we are now and know where life will be. At least, that’s what’s in it for me.