On curiosity

by Ben Van Heuvelen

Scientists have discovered evidence that could reveal the coloring of some dinosaurs.

From one perspective, on the scale of possible scientific breakthroughs – from the development of vaccines to knowledge of the origins of the universe – this discovery scores pretty low. From another perspective – that of the little kid in all of us, whose imagination was once excited by the image of giant, terrifying creatures – it seems like a small miracle. Paleontology is amazing. Didn’t you ever wonder how anyone could possibly take an arrangement of bones and, with any confidence, create a vivid rendering of a roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex? As children, I think we loved dinosaur pictures not just because we could imagine the terrible power of the T-Rex’s jaws, but also because science and art, magically combined, seemed to be allowing us to travel through time.

I’ve always assumed that the best scientists must retain something like this kind of wonder at the world. On that note, here is a passage from the Times article, which explains the origins of the dinosaur-coloring breakthrough:

In the new study, Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol, and colleagues have analyzed the structures of what appear to be feathers and say they match the feathers of living birds down to the microscopic level. They used microscopic features to determine the ancient feathers’ color. The study builds on earlier work on fossil bird feathers by Jakob Vinther, a graduate student at Yale, and his colleagues. In 2006, Mr. Vinther discovered what looked like an ink sac preserved in a squid fossil. Putting the fossil under a microscope, he discovered the sac was filled with tiny spheres. The spheres were identical to pigment-loaded structures in squid ink, known as melanosomes.

Mr. Vinther knew that melanosomes created colors in other animals, including bird’s feathers. He and his colleagues made a microscopic inspection of fossils of feathers from extinct birds. They discovered melanosomes with the same sausage- shaped structure as those found in living birds. By analyzing the shape and arrangement of the fossil melanosomes, they were able to get clues to their original color. They determined, for example, that a 47-million-year-old feather had the dark iridescent sheen found on starlings today.

Dr. Benton was intrigued when he read Mr. Vinther’s research and immediately wondered what it might mean for dinosaurs.

I imagine Dr. Benton, weary from his day’s tasks – writing grant applications, peer- reviewing journal articles, meeting with graduate students, planning his portion of an upcoming paleontology conference. His eyes have begun drying and tightening with fatigue. On his desk, amid the piles of papers, lies an article by a graduate student at Yale on ancient feathers. The article received some attention – it warranted an article in the Science section of the New York Times last year – but it’s one of three dozen studies that Dr. Benton knows he “should” read. He wipes off his glasses, picks up the article, and begins to skim, almost looking for a reason to conclude that he can stop without feeling any guilt. But he reads a bit longer, and as his mind releases from the surrounding world of practical concern, his thoughts become fluid. There is space for inspiration. With child-like literalness, he immediately wonders what this might mean for dinosaurs.