June 28, 2011

Dinosaur Bone Hunting with Nobel Laureates

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Yesterday afternoon I went on a dinosaur bone hunting trip in Livingston, Montana with paleontologist Jack Horner. Okay, so we didn’t really go on a proper dinosaur bone hunting trip. Rather, we went on a short tour of a dinosaur digsite in Livingston, Montana. The digsite is in the Morrison Sandstone– a formation known for being a rich source of dinosaur bones– and is in a place where they have discovered several sauropod skeletons. Jack was kind enough to let us dig around a bit on the site to see if we could find any new sauropod bones sticking out of the sandstone. I didn’t find any new bones, but Jack let me hold the cast of a bone that was discovered earlier. Sauropod bones are enormous. This one was nearly as big as I am!

Jack Horner, Me, and a cast of a Sauropod bone.
Livingston, Montana, June 2011.

So, visiting a dinosaur digsite with Jack Horner alone is an incredibly awesome way to spend an afternoon. However, I was also fortunate enough to visit the digsite with four– yes, four!– Nobel Laureates in physics (Murray Gell-Mann, Dick Taylor, Bob Wilson, and Sheldon Glashow), two– yes, two!– astronauts as well as people accomplished in other fields (writing, dance, music, fashion design, and so on) who were all out in Montana for the “Adventures of the Mind” program. This program brings together bright, promising high school students with “adult doers and dreamers.” 

The “Adventures of the Mind” Program ended this past weekend, but many of the adult participants stayed in Bozeman, Montana for an extra two days to attend a couple of fundraiser events. The first event was a reception and a panel on cosmology at the Museum of the Rockies. The panel consisted of the four Nobel Laureates in physics and was moderated by accomplished physicist Lisa Randall. The second event was a behind-the-scenes tour of the dinosaur exhibit– as well as of the dinosaur bone preparation and storage areas– led by Jack Horner and some of his graduate students. The museum tour was followed by a drive out to Livingston to visit the sauropod digsite. So, I spent the past two days surrounded by incredibly smart scientists– and other smart people accomplished in other fields– and some somewhat wealthy folks. And we spent a great amount of time looking at DINOSAURS. These past two days, I feel that I died and went to science heaven. I had a fantastic time.

One of Jack’s graduate students chats about sauropods.
Livingston, Montana, June 2011.

Murray Gell-Mann and I at the digsite. Livingston, Montana, June 2011.

So why, you might ask, did I attend this event? No, I am not secretly wealthy… or a dinosaur expert… or a Nobel Laureate… the story is long and somewhat complex. Perhaps I’ll tell it sometime. I’ll just tell you the beginning right now. The story begins, “Well, I used to work for a magician…”

This particular magician has many scientist friends. A friend of this magician– who is now also my friend– invited me up for the event. And I just couldn’t say no to meeting Jack Horner and the others!

 Murray Gell-Mann checks out a dinosaur bone in preparation.
Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana, June 2011.

Dinosaur eggs (dark black) in a chunk of rock coated in white plaster
for protection. Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana, June 2011.

A closer view of a dinosaur egg (dark black).
Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana, June 2011.

My head is actually reeling from all of the wonderfully brilliant people I have met over the past two days. I had to explain my thesis research several times to some very smart people, and I found that a little overwhelming and intimidating. I think I managed to explain my research fairly well, however. I hope so. Most recently, I had a long chat with Bob Wilson about my thesis research. I kept thinking to myself, “Wow! I can’t believe Bob Wilson is actually asking me questions about my thesis!”

You may have heard of Bob, or at least his research. He received his Nobel prize in physics for accidentally discovering cosmic microwave background radiation associated with the Big Bang. He and his research colleagues did not expect to find this radiation, and so at first they thought it might be trouble with their instrument. They devoted quite a bit of effort to removing any possible interferences to their instrument, including scaring away some pigeons that had roosted in their instrument and removing the associated pigeon excrement. The removal of the pigeon poop made no difference, however. The radiation was still there, and shortly thereafter was recognized as concrete evidence supporting the Big Bang theory.

Bob Wilson and I. Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana, June 2011.

I’ve had a blast these past few days! I owe my friend– and my magician friend– a big thank-you. I’m honored that I was able to attend this event.

Tomorrow, it’s back to Laramie and back to work on my thesis!

***As an aside, I think it’s finally time to upgrade my little, ancient point-and-shoot camera, which has not been impressing me recently with its quality (or lack thereof). I’m actually going to visit my magician friend in Las Vegas in July, so I’m going to treat myself to a new camera before then. Let me know if you have any good suggestions for affordable digital cameras. I think I want to buy another point-and-shoot for now since I’m not quite ready yet to spring for a real camera.***