Although my thesis title pins me down as an early life palaeontologist, I must admit that I sometimes think about other things scientific (don’t tell my supervisor!).
All of Palaeontology
I do love all things fossil. Tiny cells over a billion years old, gigantic dinosaurs, intricate trilobites, enigmatic Ediacarans, you name it. While I may know more about cellular fossils than anything else, that won’t stop me chattering on about anything long (at least a few million years) dead!
And under palaeontology comes evolution. I am very fortunate to be able to teach evolution to undergraduates at Oxford, and the history of the subject and the intricacies of its mechanism continue to fascinate. Taking a history of life, palaeontological perspective on evolution is something rarely done now, since the explosion of evolutionary biology and modern molecular evolutionary studies. I still think fossils are an invaluable tool in understanding the evolutionary story and will talk at great length about it if provoked!
When you work on early life palaeontology, is it not a great leap of faith to then get interested in astrobiology. The way we think about astrobiology today has many parallels with early life on earth.
Previously, the field of astrobiology was synonymous only with SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, made famous by Frank Drake, and by the late great Carl Sagan. This revolved largely around tuning into radio signals from the cosmos to try and detect transmissions from alien civilisations. Unfortunately, after nearly 50 years of listening, and various developments in listening technology, we have still heard nothing (save a couple of secret military satellites!).
The modern incarnation of astrobiology is much more concerned with going out and looking for signals of life, rather than sitting at home and waiting for them to come to us. Using a huge range of techniques, including remote sensing of planetary atmospheres, indirect and direct imaging of planets around other stars, and robotic missions to nearby planets, today’s astrobiologists are able to search for even the slightest hint of life
. And this is where early life palaeontology comes in. We are long past expecting to find ‘little green men’ on the surface of Mars. Our expectations are much lower – hinting more at severely radiation damaged cellular organisms at the most. Which is more or less exactly what I am looking for in the early history of Earth’s biosphere.
So the practicalities allowed me to get into astrobiology. But since then, I have become fascinated by all things astrobiological – old and new.
When it comes down to it, I did train as a Geologist, and it has left a lasting impression on me. I love being out in the field, rain or shine (admittedly, shine is preferable), and my attriactive/interesting/utterly essential rock collection has overspilled from my own home into my parents’.
While I love all aspects of the subject, from volcanoes to petrology, it is field geology that really turns me on (geologically speaking!). Mapping and logging and traipsing around the wilderness is a super relaxing getaway from the day-to-day microscoping.