Palaeontology brings the past to life, providing perspectives on who we are and where we come from — the original ancestry.com! More than any other science, palaeontology is great storytelling, where incredible narrative arcs describe the parade of ancient life across a vast four-dimensional canvas of space and time. We relate to these stories because fossils — no matter how bizarre they may appear — were once like us: actors enlivening the shared stage of the earth.
Dinosaurs are palaeontological icons and an endless source of fascination. At their most awe-inspiring they are monstrous yet safely extinct (except for birds, of course), and it takes little effort to incite interest in them. New forms with tongue-twisting or tongue-in-cheek names (Masiakasaurus knopfl eri is an example of both) are announced to great fanfare, and newly discovered aspects of their lives (how they looked, moved, breathed, ate, pooped, reproduced, grew, or otherwise interacted with their world) garner significant attention almost daily in the scientific and popular media.
And while it is sometimes tempting to wonder if the hubbub surrounding palaeontology and dinosaurs leaves much room for real science, look closely and you can see the scientific method carefully at work. Colourful stories are grounded in documentable evidence, and observations and hypotheses are wrung through the machinery of theory constructed at the intersections of geology, biology, and physics. As such, palaeontological conclusions and hypotheses are testable with new discoveries and are readily accessible to other science practitioners.
As demonstrated by the science-and-showmanship of Waterhouse Hawkins, Barnum Brown, Roy Chapman Andrews, and most recently, Stephen Jay Gould, the dual roles of palaeontology as science and entertainment have been inexorably intertwined for more than 200 years. Palaeontological professionals and museums are keenly aware of these dual roles and the expectations they impose. Special palaeontological discoveries remain carefully guarded secrets that are rolled out only in conjunction with extensive media coverage. Emerging technologies, such as 3D scanning, are eagerly pressed into service to reconstruct dinosaurs and their environments in breathtaking new ways. Newly unveiled exhibits, web sites, and a stream of social media chatter constantly refresh our notions of the past, while providing ample opportunity to share reactions and opinions. And palaeontologists are routinely called upon to anchor documentaries, weigh in on various hypotheses, write books and articles, and lecture to appreciative audiences.
Occasionally, the science–entertainment machinery breaks down, allowing speculation and pet theory to supersede verifiable science. But like all science, palaeontology is self-correcting. And in some cases, a correction may actually result in a story evolving into something even more exciting. Witness the revelation that Archaeoraptor liaoningensis — a supposed bird–dinosaur intermediate concocted from fossil bits by an enterprising Chinese peasant in the late 1990s — was actually a composite of two new and distinctive Cretaceous fossils: the bird Yanornis and a truly bizarre four-winged non-avian dinosaur, Microraptor, that glided through the ancient forests of northeast China using large flight feathers on both front and hind limbs. The truth, most definitely, may be stranger than fiction!
Above all else, however, palaeontology is a wonderful means by which children and the public can be introduced to mathematics, engineering, and science in ways that build a comfort with and appreciation for the scientific foundations of modern society. For example, physics, mechanics, and engineering all help explain how sauropod dinosaurs — the largest-known land animals — were constructed and avoided being crushed by their own weight. Evolutionary biology explains skeletal similarities of dinosaurs and allows us to define what a dinosaur is and isn’t (hint: they all walked on their toes and had uniquely erect hind limb postures). Mathematics and statistics help predict how many dinosaurs there are still to be discovered (high hundreds to low thousands). And even chemistry, the bane of students worldwide, risks becoming fun when pressed into service to help explain exciting new discoveries of fossilized muscle and blood vessels in 66-million-year-old dinosaurs from Montana.
Palaeontology is a great science because it inspires curiosity about the world, and allows us to share our wonder about the past, present, and future. Palaeontology is science for everyone!