Friday 5 January 2018

Awful Changes

Awful Changes (1830) by Henry de la Beche. Here, de la Beche
encapsulated the growing public and scientific concern posed by
the fossil record about the possibility of extinction.
The discovery of ichthyosaurs by the world-famous fossil hunter Mary Anning in 1811 marked the beginning of a revolution in both biology and geology. 15 years previously, the great naturalist Georges Cuvier documented fossil elephants which had no living representatives, determining that the species must be extinct. The revelation that animals could vanish from the face of an Earth created by a benevolent, loving God was concerning, but it was tempered by the herds of living elephants which roamed the African savannah and Indian jungles. Perhaps a few primitive tribes might become extinct every now and again but surely entire groups of organisms, products of divine thought, would persist? Yet ichthyosaurs, with their dolphin-shaped body, but distinctly reptilian anatomy, were unlike anything that still existed. They proved that life on Earth was not only fragile, but truly vulnerable unto the point of total extinction. Along with the burgeoning science of geology, ichthyosaurs became part of an unsettling enlightenment which illuminated deep time, lost worlds and cataclysmic revolutions that changed the face of the Earth itself. Thought turned to mankind's place in this world. Were we really God's chosen race to keep dominion over the Earth or were we just like any another species, lost in a seemingly endless expanse of geological time and just as susceptible to its ravages as the ichthyosaurs? This fear was encapsulated by Henry de la Beche in his 1830 cartoon Awful Changes, depicting the extinction of humanity and the return of ichthyosaurs in an entirely new age on Earth.

I draw your attention to Awful Changes for three reasons. Firstly it is a great cartoon, secondly advertisement with a spot of shameless self promotion. Dinosaurs have dominated the palaeontological spotlight in the media, but ichthyosaurs have finally been given their own documentary, presented by Sir David Attenborough! Attenborough and the Sea Dragon, due to air this coming Sunday at 20:00 on BBC1 will document the discovery of a new species of ichthyosaur, using cutting edge analytical techniques to reconstruct everything from its skeleton to the colour of its skin. I had the privilege of working on the former, digitally extracting the bones from CT scan data and putting the complete skeleton back together. This will be featured on the program, along with about three seconds of my left ear and right hand. I had the chance to meet the great man as well as see some of the filming on site at the University of Bristol and I can promise it will be an excellent show.

Ben (bottom right) entertains us with tales of the Jurassic
seas. I am third from the left, wearing the dark blue shirt
The third reason is change itself. The last year has kept me too busy to be able to regularly update this blog. While reading papers from the forefront of palaeontological research should theoretically give me still more to blog about, the time taken to read and digest those papers is substantial. Additionally, a greater appreciation for the controversies and caveats surrounding cutting edge research makes it difficult to write popular science blog articles without getting bogged down in the technical details and internally quibbling about how accurate my article really is. I will only become busier over the coming months, particularly this time next year when I will apply for PhDs in palaeontology. This may present an opportunity for rebranding and rejuvenating my blog, however. Two other blogs have inspired this change. Dr Ben Moon's excellent blog on ichthyosaurs also provides a record of his deeds and doings during his own PhD. Ben was my supervisor on reconstructing the ichthyosaur for the BBC and features for much longer than three seconds on the BBC program, highlighting the key features of the skeleton and its scientific importance. You can check out his blog here:

My other source of inspiration comes from a blog post written by Dr Paul Barrett, a dinosaur palaeontologist at London's Natural History Museum. Dr Barret's article focuses not on his work, but rather what the life of a post doctoral researcher is like, from its greatest moments to the trials and tribulations it can also bring. After my PhD I intend to continue palaeontological research and Dr Barret's article gave me a perspective on my chosen career path that I had neither considered or was even previously aware of. You can check out his article here:

As Dr Barrett details at the end of his article, he does not preach about how to be a post doctoral researcher. Rather, he provides a case study of what it can be like; I found this far more personal and useful than other more practically focused online resources about PhDs - the NERC postgraduate application guidelines are terribly specific and terribly dry! Thus, inspired by both Drs, I will aim to provide a case study of what it is like to be a PhD student. What I record here will hopefully be of use not just to fossil fondlers like myself, but to any undergraduate or even secondary school student considering the career path I am pursuing. By making this change now, I will not only be able to provide a case study of my PhD, but also of the application process. I will likely begin posting in earnest next December. I may occasionally indulge in some self promotion about my ongoing research or publications. As these will likely be an important aspect of my PhD application, it may be useful to have a brief record of them here. Blogging about palaeontological news stories has been great fun, but it is time for a (not so awful) change. More anon...