Picture a paleontologist and visions of cutting-edge technology don't usually spring to mind. You might envision a khaki-clad scientist brushing dirt off a frail fossil, or maybe a lab-coated researcher scrutinizing a piece of ancient bone under an old-school microscope.
But according to Imran Rahman, a paleobiologist and research fellow at the University of Bristol, paleontologists have been using virtual technologies to peer into the past for years — and Rahman himself is now using the same techniques to bring precious fossils out of the laboratory and into the wider world.
He spoke with us about his progressive work and about life as a 21st-century paleontologist.
You've replicated 450-million-year-old fossils with CT scanning and a 3-D printer. Is this something other paleontologists are doing?
There are a lot of paleontologists using these virtual paleontology techniques for research purposes — that's taken off in the last few years. But at this stage, people haven't really looked beyond that, so I guess I'm one of the first to try to expand this to other activities.
Activities like bringing those replicas to the Lapworth Museum earlier this year? Tell me about that.
Normally the most spectacular fossils are just held behind glass cabinets and are only available for scientists to look at because they're so rare and precious. I thought there must be some way around this. My idea was to produce replicas so we could allow people to actually access and engage with these one-of-a-kind fossil specimens. We used 3-D printers to print out actual, physical versions of the fossils so people could hold them in their hands and pass them around. It's a different way of trying to educate or engage people in paleontology than has been done previously.
Where are you hoping to go next with this?
I'd like to expand the resource I've developed to encompass more types of fossils — dinosaur skulls and all sorts of weird and wonderful animals. As well as having these physical replicas, I'm really keen to try to make the digital data available so anyone can look at these actual models of fossils and learn from them as they want.
So eventually anyone with a 3-D printer may be able to print fossil replicas at home?
That's the ultimate goal, in a way. If we can make this data available digitally, then they could download it and print it out. I don't know if we're quite there yet with 3-D printers for home use, but it's coming. Within the next decade it wouldn't surprise me if you'd be able to download a copy of your favorite fossil and print it out in your favorite color and let it sit on your mantelpiece in your own house. There are all sorts of possibilities for this. The technology's just emerging in this realm, so we'll see what happens in the future. It should be fantastic.
That's incredible. Did you always imagine yourself doing this sort of work?
I guess I was one of the clichéd people that enjoyed fossils and paleontology when I was a kid. I was obsessed with dinosaurs like lots of children. Obviously, I didn't entirely grow out of that.
What's kept you committed to paleontology?
The fact that we've got these fossils which sometimes don't look like an awful lot but reveal so much information about things which died out hundreds of millions of years ago. I just find that whole concept really fascinating. It keeps me going every day.
What's the strangest fossil you've seen in person?
There are a lot of weird things, but there was one particular echinoderm I came across while doing my Ph.D. that looks incredibly like a tennis racket. It's got this frame like a racket and then this internal — not netting, but softer parts. I always thought that was quite staggering. I think that's the weirdest one I've worked with, certainly.
How old was that?
That was from the Cambrian, so over 500 million years old.
It must be a little scary handling objects that ancient.
It's certainly something you consider. I think every paleontologist has a story which involves dropping a priceless specimen. In fact, I was visiting a museum in the U.K. and was about to ask if I could borrow some of their fossils so I could CT scan them; I picked up one which I thought would be really good to borrow and was about to ask if I could take it on loan and then I dropped it. Thankfully, it didn't break.
What's the biggest misconception people have about paleontology?
In the U.K., I often get the impression that people think paleontologists and geologists and people of that sort are dusty professors sitting in their offices wearing a jacket with a big beard and smoking a pipe or something like that. In actual fact, more or less everyone in my department is young and vibrant and very good at talking to people as well. I think that's a very important part: to be able to communicate with other people. Traditionally scientists weren't very good at doing this, but now I think scientists and paleontologists in particular are really good at communicating their science to the public.
How else do you see technology affecting paleontology right now and in the future?
Traditionally, all our research was published in printed journals with static images. Now, because everything's digital, we can have much more interactive content. You can have 3-D models embedded in a paper, which people can interact with. I think that technology is going to really aid paleontologists in communicating their results with other scientists and non-scientists as well.
I think the future for science communication and paleontology is using these kinds of technologies to try and engage with people in different ways. Obviously the original fossils are always going to be the most important thing, but we should also try to make use of these different technologies that are available to us to try and better communicate our results to all sorts of people, whether they be scientists or non-scientists.
Photos: Russell Garwood