Sunday, 18 March 2012

Science, art and the wonder of it all.

Sun and rain in the Wessex Formation.
© Stu Pond 2012.
It’s a cold, windy day in mid-February, and I have stowed by trusty Donegal tweed flat cap in the pocket of my jacket and I am tightening the hood against the coming rain, the first spots of which are falling around me now. As I look to the north I watch as the chalk cliffs become enveloped by a translucent wall of grey; the full force of the weather will be upon me within minutes. Hopefully it’s just a squall, but it looks bigger than that.

I have waded across a shallow, narrow channel, startling several loitering Oystercatchers in the process to what is presently a small islet off the coast of the island. Too impatient to wait for the tide to fall I crossed the gap carefully, trying to avoid a boot full of the murky, freezing English Channel by short-stepping through the water and hopping across seaweed-coated rocks. Plenty of places to look for bone here, but that’s not why I’m drawn to this place once again.

The rain starts in earnest and I look down at the rock I am standing on. The deep red clays erode quickly on this part of the coast, a reminder of the transient nature even of the very geology under our feet, the turning of the wheel of deep time. A yard or so from where I stand is the impression of large tridactyl footprint sunken into the rock surface, and I can see two more striding away towards the south-east. A dinosaur walked here. I’m not noticing the wind and rain for the moment, although as the afternoon wears on it’s presence will become ever more immediate. In my mind’s eye I am standing on a broad mud bank on the edge of a streams which itself is part of a large braided river system. To the west there is the hint of highlands on the far horizon, but that might be the cloud, or possibly the smoke from the wildfires that occur here and in the hinterland during the dry season. It’s hot and humid and though the streams still flow at present as the season wears on some will dry up, as will the ponds and oxbows in the surrounding land. However, for now the streams are for the most part shallow enough to wade; if you’re a dinosaur that is.

Something makes me turn back, a noise perhaps, or that six sense the ecology of fear seems to awake within possible prey, and suddenly she is there. A 4.5 metre theropod dinosaur is walking towards me, head bobbing from side to side and eyes glittering with awareness and a birdlike intelligence. Her three-toed feet are sinking into the soft mud but she is moving with purpose, and as she passes close to me I can hear her steady breathing, see the landscape reflected in her eyes, a landscape she feels completely at one with. Her walk is the walk of predator, relaxed and self-assured, fully alive to her surroundings. She passes close enough for me to touch, and I see her scarred snout, the tuft of feathers on the crown of her head, the hide of her flanks scaly but fantastically patterned, and I notice her colouration which match the scale patterning in may places. She halts a few strides on, sniffs the air and walks on into a future long passed. I am back in the present; the rain stings my face, and I get my camera and field notebook out and get to work.

Rewind five months and I’m standing in the Warner Valley, Utah. It’s still only mid-morning but the sun is getting hot, and as I stare out across the sagebrush and creosote I can’t discern the presence of man in the landscape. Behind me spectacular red cliffs rise and march away to the north-west, but here at their feet lies a treasure beyond price. Here too are the tracks of a large theropod dinosaur, as well as the tracks of many smaller bipedal dinosaurs and a lone four-toed ornithischian. These criss-cross trackways indicate a busy spot for dinosaurs, probably a river system that stretched across several states and was bordered in the north-east by a mighty erg, a sand sea that also contains evidence of dinosaur activity. On a warm, dry, bright morning like this it isn’t too hard to imagine small theropod dinosaurs skittering around your feet as they hunt for insects and small animals, their birdlike chattering filling the air as they speed off into the distance. We’ll be heading off in a few minutes to another site, to another time.

This is why I love science. For myself, like so many others it evokes wonder and awe and confers a continuing sense of amazement, and the more you learn the more you understand when you look; the world we live in becomes a palimpsest that with the right tools can be read, deciphered and comprehended. Standing in the cold wind with horizontal rain driving into your face might not be everybody’s idea of fun, but for me the footprints I stand next to fill me with emotion; they are a tangible connection between me and the animal that made them, a meeting of two distinct species across the vastness of time, walking on the same surface as each other. It’s a fleeting moment of oneness in the universe, the unimaginable infinity of time and space. Here is actual behavior, an animal caught in the act of doing something definite, with intent and with awareness. And here I am too, and that dinosaur is as close as the back of a shadow.

I am convinced science and art are the soulmates of human endeavor, the two things that are the best qualities of us as a species. Like science, art is the pursuit of fundamental truth, and one complements the other. We need to send artists to the moon, poets to the ISS, musicians to the deeps of the oceans.  Science and art are explorers of both the outer and inner worlds; they are the interface between the two in so many ways. We can reveal the incredible complexity of science through the beauty only seeing can convey, through the verses poets fashion that stir something within us, to the intuitive, emotional understanding only music can communicate. This is why I love art.

Science, like art, is also capable of revealing things about ourselves and the universe we are part of in ways that both delight and inform. Often in the pursuit of science I am filled with wonder, a profound and deep sense of being part of something bigger than being me, of being connected to some vastness, intangible to me perhaps, but ultimately explicable. Of course that something is the fact we are the universe made conscious, curious about itself and filled with awe and questions as it contemplate its own existence. Art is the only other endeavor that creates this condition within humans.  From the birth of young stars in distant nebulae to the chiton clinging onto a fossil bone fragment plucked from a rockpool, this sense of wonder is enhanced by the fact the universe observable and we can formulate and test hypotheses, hopefully understanding the processes which enable our existence, the universe and all it contains existence, its processes. Like art, it illuminates our inner selves, and makes the abstract tangible.

I pack up my camera and field notebook and look around. It’s raining hard now, and the falling tide has made the trip back a tad easier as I don’t have to negotiate the shallows and risk a booty. I take a last glance at the tracks, knowing that next time I’m on the island I will be drawn here once more to see the prints, feel the presence of the animal. To make the connection. I’ve a few hours left before the tide comes in, and I head off southwards with the storm lashing at my back, and lightness in my heart. I’ve been walking in the company of dinosaurs, and it feels really, really good.


  1. Lovely post Stu and so delightfully put. I think anyone in our science knows exactly where you are coming from. Every quarry I've been to has a definite atmosphere - all of them different.

    And, like you, I always feel closer to the presence of the animals of the past just by being there. I really love that.

  2. Thanks Mark. It's the joy of being in the field.