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A tiny blob of stretchy brown matter, soft tissue from inside the leg bone, suggests the specimen had not completely decomposed. (© Science)

Dinosaur Shocker

Probing a 68-million-year-old T. rex, Mary Schweitzer stumbled upon astonishing signs of life that may radically change our view of the ancient beasts

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Young-earth creationists also see Schweitzer’s work as revolutionary, but in an entirely different way. They first seized upon Schweitzer’s work after she wrote an article for the popular science magazine Earth in 1997 about possible red blood cells in her dinosaur specimens. Creation magazine claimed that Schweitzer’s research was “powerful testimony against the whole idea of dinosaurs living millions of years ago. It speaks volumes for the Bible’s account of a recent creation.”

This drives Schweitzer crazy. Geologists have established that the Hell Creek Formation, where B. rex was found, is 68 million years old, and so are the bones buried in it. She’s horrified that some Christians accuse her of hiding the true meaning of her data. “They treat you really bad,” she says. “They twist your words and they manipulate your data.” For her, 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.”

By definition, there is a lot that scientists don’t know, because the whole point of science is to explore the unknown. By being clear that scientists haven’t explained everything, Schweitzer leaves room for other explanations. “I think that we’re always wise to leave certain doors open,” she says.

But schweitzer’s interest in the long-term preservation of molecules and cells does have an otherworldly dimension: she’s collaborating with NASA scientists on the search for evidence of possible past life on Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan, and other heavenly bodies. (Scientists announced this spring, for instance, that Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus appears to have liquid water, a probable precondition for life.)

Astrobiology is one of the wackier branches of biology, dealing in life that might or might not exist and might or might not take any recognizable form. “For almost everybody who works on NASA stuff, they are just in hog heaven, working on astrobiology questions,” Schweitzer says. Her NASA research involves using antibodies to probe for signs of life in unexpected places. “For me, it’s the means to an end. I really want to know about my dinosaurs.”

To that purpose, Schweitzer, with Wittmeyer, spends hours in front of microscopes in dark rooms. To a fourth-generation Montanan, even the relatively laid-back Raleigh area is a big city. She reminisces wistfully about scouting for field sites on horseback in Montana. “Paleontology by microscope is not that fun,” she says. “I’d much rather be out tromping around.”

“My eyeballs are just absolutely fried,” Schweitzer says after hours of gazing through the microscope’s eyepieces at glowing vessels and blobs. You could call it the price she pays for not being typical.

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