Showing Teeth: Science Night at the University

The brown teeth I’m seeing, fossilized in rock, accompanied by the rest of the animal (of the enantiornithes group of avians), were part of a living bird more than 120 million years ago. The sharp image of teeth nearly fills up the theater-sized screen, and I hear a student I know say that they look scary. (Her fear presumably is of the bite, not the existence of the teeth.) I can’t resist the urge to tell her that they are actually quite small; I bet 4 teeth, maybe more, would fit on her fingernail. The whole Mesozoic bird attached to its teeth is the size of a common songbird today—close to the length and width of a human heart.

Sure enough, as if Dr. Chiappe overhears me, the slide changes from a close-up fossil image to show a photographer at work on the specimens. Her head peers down some anteater-camera device (not unlike a microscope) to take impeccable photographs. Slides of this photographer’s work display the intricacies in fossils of early known avians caught in stone in the Jehol Biota region of China. Feathers, soft tissues, more than I ever expected to see of an animal this old. I join in the chorus of gasp and wow slide after slide, as artifacts older than I can rightfully imagine are “in front of me” in color and detail as if I were the one looking through that camera. We are a group of students, staff, faculty, and community members gathered in the dark to hear about the past so that we may better understand the now.

My friends and I will agree later that the experience would not be the same without the inclusion of the photographer-at-work on these tiny bodies to give us perspective. We had only vague notions of size before we saw her working. A photograph is not a fossil, but they act in similar ways.

After this talk, I will walk out arm in arm with my partner, and drive home to watch the 2016 Iowa Caucus results unfold during hours of political TV coverage. All of those birds squawking, their colors showing. I love primary season and the endless stream of candidate updates. But this primary season has already felt so long, the wingspan of an eagle instead of a goldfinch (or perhaps an enantiornithe). What hasn’t changed in 4 or 8 years is the glossy surface of political image we view through a filter, like a photo. As loud as the candidates are, they are a 2D surface, not a reality in my living room. I seek them out as artifacts that bring me closer to understanding the now, and I realize too that there is always a gap between what we can see and what we can touch.

*

Listening to Dr. Chiappe speak in the Student Cinema, I write “Jehol birds reveal an unexpected degree of ecological specialization.” I will wonder if I got it wrong when I look at my notes later: did I mean to write ecological diversity? But when I search ‘ecological specialization,’ it’s a thing.

The birds have teeth but may not be using them. The phrase comes formed like a prophecy in my mind, but it sounds like a political sound bite.

*

It’s not something about which I’ve spent a lot of time thinking—the fate of scientific research intended by museum staff in the USA being possibly thwarted due to political breaks with countries around the globe. [But] The winner of the Presidential Election may instigate a butterfly effect on the work that people like Luis Chiappe can do a year from now.

A Democratic Iowa winner will only be declared after I have gone to bed.

I won’t read my notes from Science Night for a week.

When I do pick them up, I’ll remember that the night’s last question came from a young man, a student at the university. He stood up and asked Dr. Chiappe, “What’s the hardest part of studying these?” (presumably including the excavating and cleaning and analyzing of avian fossils).

Dr. Chiappe smiled. “The hardest part of studying these fossils isn’t scientific at all.” Even famous Dinosaur Institute Directors worry about politics.

The Chinese have teeth.

*

If you ask most people what archeology is, the results would show we tend to think of it outside the reach of politics (a person standing in either field would be close enough to see the other, perhaps with the help of a lens, but not close enough to touch). Examining slides of photographed fossils and participating in televised political rituals on the same night is like peering at evidence to the contrary. In reality, there is only one field where everything is connected and disrupted by everything else.

 

 

 

 

 

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