Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The importance of looking

Not too many years ago a paleontologist named Mary Higby Schweitzer was all over the news. Schweitzer, after more than a decade of dedicated research, had done what most of her colleagues thought was impossible - she showed that well-preserved fossilized bones of dinosaurs can contain blood cells and the remains of soft tissues that can tell us far more than we know today about these extinct animals.

The press went nuts. It didn't hurt that she was a good-looking woman, of course, but the fact was that scientists over the past 300 years had determined that dinosaur bones were all you could get. Any soft tissue that might remain would be so degraded after at least 65 million years as to be scientifically useless. (For most of those 300 years, of course, scientists didn't have the lab equipment to study it anyway.) But in 1992, Schweitzer noticed what looked like blood cells and other organic matter exactly where they should be found in fossil bones. Ignoring the received wisdom of other paleontologists, she patiently did the tests necessary to rule out other possibilities and published her tentative observations in 1993.

Still a graduate student, offering data that went against the common view, her paper got little attention. But she kept at it, finding more soft tissue in more dinosaurs, honing her observations, and finally publishing the work of her and her team in 2007 and 2008. Despite controversy, her findings not only made media waves but gained general acceptance in the field. (She's written an article about all this in the current Scientific American.) The bottom line: It turns out that while lab extrapolations say dinosaur tissue can't survive intact enough to study, there obviously are situations out in the real world in which the tissue can indeed outlast the huge time span.

Schweitzer got a lot of recognition in Montana because she had done her initial work and obtained her doctorate from Montana State University and had worked for MSU's Jack Horner, the celebrated dinosaur expert.

But it remains to be seen if she will be a footnote, a sidebar, or a major figure in future books about paleontology. Her studies continue; her results may tell the tale. Still, I think she should be remembered in any case for paying attention to something important in the face of generations of scientists who simply hadn't bothered to look.

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