Thursday, May 04, 2006

Fresh Thinking About Fresh Dinosaurs

Remember the news blurb, some months ago, that paleontologists had discovered soft tissue from a T. Rex? Though intrigued, I could not find more details at the time. Yesterday, though, while waiting to see the dentist, I chanced across an article illuminating the breakthrough. The story—Helen Fields, Dinosaur Shocker, Smithsonian Magazine, May, 2006—also offered a charming portrait of the unusual scientist credited with the discovery, Mary Schweitzer.

Although Schweitzer had been fascinated in dinosaurs as a child, she began pursuing a doctorate in paleontology only long after having graduated from college with a degree in communicative disorders. In the meantime, she had married, had three kids, and taught remedial biology to high schoolers. Perhaps that unusual background helped her to question the assumption that soft tissue could not survive fossilization. As a fellow paleotologist said of Schweiter, "If you point her in a direction and say, 'Don’t go that way,' she’s the kind of person who’ll say, 'Why?'—and she goes and tests it herself.”

Unhappily for Schweitzer, creationists have seized upon her work as an alleged proof that dinosaurs did not live millions of years ago. Although a devout Christian, she also embraces science. Fields says that, for Schweitzer, "science and religion represent two different ways of looking at the world; invoking the hand of God to explain natural phenomena breaks the rules of science. After all, she says, what God asks is faith, not evidence. 'If you have all this evidence and proof positive that God exists, you don’t need faith. I think he kind of designed it so that we’d never be able to prove his existence. And I think that’s really cool.'"

I'm looking forward to offering a copy of the article to my daughter, A.J. She, too, had a childhood passion for dinosaurs, and continues to love science. Among her many other career plans—cartoonist, professional singer, dolphin trainer—A.J. dreams of become the first field marine astrobiologist. It turns out that Schweitzer has dabbled in the search for ancient extraterrestrial life, too. Better than that, though, Schweitzer offers an inspiring example of how a hard-working iconoclast can triumph over conventional thinking and willful ignorance.


Joel Bernstein said...

"Unhappily for Schweitzer, creationists have seized upon her work as an alleged proof that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago."

That doesn't sound right...

Tom W. Bell said...

Thanks, Joel. That was a typo--missing "not." I've now added it.

JB said...

I can understand why Schweitzer might be proturbed, but really does she have the right to be? I think not. Now, if you read the article, her answer as to why the bones must be 65 million years old is because they were found in rocks aged 65 million years old. That might be satisfying to some, but seeing that this means soft tissue cells had to survive for 65 million years, causes some of us to balk.