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UK’s forgotten woman astronomer honoured

TelescopeImage copyright TOM KERSS, BRENDAN OWENS
Image caption Professional astronomers through to school children will get to use the new telescope set-up

The Royal Observatory Greenwich (ROG) is to start studying the sky again after a break of 60 years.

British astronomy’s historic home has installed new telescopes in its Grade II listed Altazimuth Pavilion, which has also undergone a restoration.

The new facility is to be named after Annie Maunder, one of the first female scientists to work at the ROG and who made key discoveries about the Sun.

Professionals, amateurs and school children will use the instruments.

MoonImage copyright  NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
Image caption  Today’s technology, combined with new processing techniques, can achieve great results

Why is this important?

The new telescope is named after a forgotten giant of UK astronomy, Annie Maunder, who had to battle the prejudice and conventions of her time (the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century). The move should help highlight her contributions for a new generation.

In addition, our cleaner air and better tech is making astronomy possible again in our cities.

As urban centres have expanded, the artificial glow of buildings and street-lights – along with smog – has drowned out the faint objects in the night sky that astronomers want to study.

So, in the last few decades, stargazing has moved out of town where you can get darker skies. But a combination of new technology and cleaner air means that astronomers will be able to use the Royal Observatory Greenwich again.


SunImage copyright NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
Image caption  The new set-up will look at the Sun – just as Annie Maunder did in her day

Charles II founded the Greenwich site in 1675. Its purpose was to map the stars and compile tables that could then be used for navigation at sea.

It was a working observatory until 1957, after which serious science retreated to the countryside to get away from urban smog and light pollution. But with cleaner air and new technologies, it is now possible for telescopes to take very decent pictures again from the capital, says ROG astronomer Brendan Owens.

“We can use what are called narrow-band filters to get around the light pollution, and then there are the new processing techniques. We can take very fast frame-rate snapshots and use only the steadiest shots to build the final result. It’s known as ‘lucky dip imaging’,” he told BBC News.

The Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope (AMAT) is actually a four-in-one instrument.

It comprises three smaller refractors around a top-end, 14-inch (35.5cm) aperture Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.

Users will be able to study the Sun and the planets in our Solar System, but also look beyond to more distant stars and planetary nebulae (great clouds of gas and dust).

For the system to be used to look at the Sun is particularly apt in the context of Annie Maunder.

ScreenImage copyright TOM KERSS, BRENDAN OWENS
Image caption The ROG plans to start slowly but over time will ramp up activities

Who was Annie Maunder?

One of the “forgotten giants” of British astronomy, she got a job at Greenwich in 1891 working as a “lady computer”, doing supporting calculations for male scientists. But she became an adept observer in her own right, and with her husband, Walter, broke new ground in our understanding of how the Sun goes through its cycles of activity.

Given the times, all the credit went to Walter. That has changed in recent years with reappraisals finally – and properly – recognising her enormous contributions.

“She remained on staff here in Greenwich until 1895 when she had to resign because, as per civil service rules back then, she couldn’t be married,” explained Dr Louise Devoy, the Curator of ROG. “But she remained very active, particularly with the British Astronomical Association, and indeed she came back to Greenwich in WW1 as a volunteer because of the shortage of staff when all the men joined up.

“The new telescope set-up will have a huge capability to image the Sun, with a special hydrogen alpha filter so you can really see activity such as flares (big outbursts).”

Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, NewfoundlandImage copyright ALFRED JOHNSON/ANNIE MAUNDER’S FAMILY
Image caption Annie Maunder pictured on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, Newfoundland

The new installation comes thanks to a successful appeal for funds.

ROG museum members, private donors and the public gave £150,000 towards the project.

The money has finally enabled proper restoration work to be completed on the Altazimuth Pavilion, which was in urgent need of repair.

“It’s a beautiful Victorian building that suffered major bomb damage. Half the building was obliterated during WWII,” said Brendan Owens.

“It was reconstructed by the time the ROG became a museum, but it was never perfect and over time, brick work crumbled and damp had crept in. When we decided on the restoration, we could have included just museum space but we saw a wonderful opportunity to make it a multi-purpose, 21st-Century observatory.”

Mr Owens said it would take a while to get the new facility running at top speed. Conversations are being held now with universities to see who would like to make use of Greenwich in their studies.

As ever, the ROG wants the public involved as much as possible. Images taken by the AMAT will be streamed online, and content shared with schools through the Peter Harrison Planetarium. There will be workshops at the observatory as well.

The ground floor of the pavilion will have an exhibition space, with a section dedicated to telling the story of Annie Maunder.

Altazimuth PavilionImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption Altazimuth Pavilion: An exhibition on the ground floor will tell the story of Annie Maunder
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The $5bn tech boss who grew up without electricity

Stewart Butterfield is worth an estimated $650m

The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles a different business leader from around the world. This week we spoke to Stewart Butterfield, the founder of technology companies Flickr and Slack.

It is not the sort of upbringing you’d associate with one of Silicon Valley’s heavyweights.

But Stewart Butterfield spent the first five years of his life living on a commune in remote Canada after his father fled the US to avoid serving in the Vietnam War.

The young Mr Butterfield and his parents lived in a log cabin in a forest in British Columbia, and for three years they had no running water or electricity.

“My parents were definitely hippies,” says Mr Butterfield, whose mother and father had named him Dharma. “They wanted to live off the land, but it turns out there was a lot of work involved, so we moved back to the city.”

After the family relocated to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, Mr Butterfield saw his first computer when he was seven, and taught himself to programme from that very young age.

An Apple II computerImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption A young Mr Butterfield learned to programme on an early generation Apple computer

Fast-forward to today and 46-year-old Stewart Butterfield – who founded both photo-sharing website Flickr, and business messaging service Slack – has an estimated personal fortune of $650m (£500m).

But perhaps in part due to his unusual upbringing he says he tries to live frugally.

“In truth I feel guilty spending too much money,” he says. “As a Canadian that world seems very strange and alien to me.”

Mr Butterfield also puts much of his success down to luck.

Mr Butterfield says that his seven-year-old self was fascinated by the first wave of personal computers.

“I was around seven in 1980, it must have been an Apple II or IIE that my parents bought,” he says. “I taught myself to code using computer magazines.”

Mr Butterfield – who changed his first name to Stewart when he was 12 – learned to make basic computer games.

However, he lost interest in computers while at high school, and ended up going on to study philosophy at the University of Victoria. From there he did a masters in the subject at Cambridge University in the UK.

In 1997 he was about to try to become a professor of philosophy when the internet “really started to take off”.

Flickr's home screenImage copyright FLICKR
Image caption Mr Butterfield sold Flickr for just $25m

“People who knew how to make websites were moving to San Francisco, and I had a bunch of friends who were making twice as much, or three times as much, as what professors were making,” he says. “It was new and exciting.”

So Mr Stewart decided to give up academia and rekindle his love of computers.

After working as a web designer for several years he launched an online game in 2002 with future Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, Mr Butterfield’s then-wife.

The game – called Game Neverending – failed to take off, and the pair were running out of cash. Frantically looking for a plan B they hit upon the idea of Flickr, going on to build the photo-sharing platform in just three months.

“The first camera phones were also coming out, and more and more households were getting internet connectivity, and then stuff happened so fast,” says Mr Butterfield.

Launched in 2004, Flickr was the one of the first websites to allow people to upload, share, tag and comment on photos.

Just a year later the founders sold the firm to internet giant Yahoo for $25m – although Mr Butterfield has since said this was the “wrong decision” as waiting longer could have meant a much bigger deal.

Nevertheless he moved on to bigger things with Slack.

A screengrab from a Slack chatImage copyrightSLACK
Image captionSlack allows colleagues to easily communicate as a group

It was 2009 and he and some partners had set up another online game, and again it failed. It did, however, spark a brainwave.

“As we were working on the game we developed a system for internal communication that we really loved,” says Mr Butterfield. “We didn’t think about it, it was very much in the background. But after a few years we thought maybe other people would like it too.”

It formed the basis for Slack, a service that today boasts eight million daily users, three million of whom pay for the more advanced features, and more than 70,000 corporate clients.

Slack enables employees to communicate and collaborate with each other in groups at work, and it has grown rapidly. IBM, Samsung, 21st Century Fox and Marks & Spencer are just a few big names to have signed up. Following a number of investment rounds Slack is now valued at $5.1bn.

Chris Green, a technology analyst at consultancy Bright Bee, says it is rare for an entrepreneur to create something successful out of the ashes of a failed project, and “almost unheard of to do it twice”.

“But if you look at Stewart’s career, it’s not just luck, he’s always been innovating in the background and looking for ways to bring order to chaos,” says Mr Green.

“That’s what Flickr and Slack have both done in their own ways.”

Slack's headquartersImage copyright SCOTT SCHILLER
Image caption Mr Butterfield says he would be happy for Slack to pay more in taxation

Slack does have competitors, though. Microsoft now offers a rival service for free with its Office 365 package, and start-up Zoom boasts a more expansive offering for about the same price.

“There is immense competition from some big well-funded companies so Slack will need to keep evolving,” Mr Green says.

Big tech firms have found themselves in the firing line for not paying enough tax – but Mr Butterfield says he would be happy for Slack to pay more taxes.

“I’d also like to see a more equitable tax policy. I have no problem paying tax. I don’t think companies are taxed enough, or critically, in the right way.”

Regarding the future, Mr Butterfield says that, unlike Flickr, he has no intention of leaving Slack.

“So many things had to go right get to this position – amazing luck was involved – and I am not so smart that I can just make it happen again,” he says.

“So if I ever wanted to see how far I could take it, this would definitely be the time to do that.”

The future is streamlined locomotives, welcome to the 1930s

Featured image

It’s hard to grasp now how much the introduction of railroads and railway services during the late 18th century and early 19th century forever changed the way we commute, travel, and transport our stock and goods.

It was a grand leap of faith into a new future, similarly to how the picture changed decades later with the introduction of commercial flights. In both cases, the world went faster, stronger, better.

Depending on the decade, different combustible resources such as timber, coal, or oil helped power the locomotive machinery.

During the 20th century, the appearance of the first streamliner locomotives, which are now the epitomes of the era, was of utmost importance.

Of the thousands of streamliners that entered services across America, only a small fraction were employed for passenger train operations. Their sound boomed from the one end of the continent to the other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Streamliner Trains – America’s Beautiful Locomotives

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hudson 4-6-4 locomotive is now recognized as a classic of the New York Central Railroad. (4-6-4 refers to it’s wheel arrangement of four leading wheels, six driving wheels, and four trailing wheels.) Its design was out there by the mid-1920s but the new machine had to wait at least a decade before it officially started operations.

The Hudson model developed because the New York Central was in dire need of a stronger and more powerful steamliner, one which could more efficiently move the ever-growing number of travelers from the east to the west. Devising the Hudson was no mistake by any means and the company added almost 300 in its inventory. They hauled the railroad’s flagship trains including the 20th Century Limited and the Empire State Express.

With the supersonic trains we have today, the Hudson locomotives may seem to be of little use. Except they treat us with their beauty and allow us to muse on everything they symbolized back in the day: progress, faith in technology, civilization, and new journeys.

 

 

 

 

 

Model trains on display at Red Mountain Library

 

 

 

 

 

There were other models that were introduced by the New York Central Railroad after the Hudson, such as the 4-8-2 Mohawk steam locomotive. This one looked as if it were a twin of the 4-6-4 type and it was also initiated.

The Milwaukee Railroad was widely praised when they introduced the first Hiawatha streamliner in the spring of 1935. The Hiawatha became the Milwaukee Railroad’s success story, and dozens of these were employed for its services. The machine was able to maintain an average speed of 80 mph.

The streamliners snaked across the country, fast enough that they are even credited with helping the Allies win World War Two. Their usage continued well after the war.

 Alex .A

The real-life superhero who saved 20 people and ruined his career

Featured image

A champion is someone who certainly exceeds expectations–a person of tremendous motivation striving for victory. The term applies not only to sports but also to fields such as science, human rights, and politics. There are many champions in the history of civilization.

Then there’s Shavarsh Karapetyan.

Even though this lavish introduction sounds a tad exaggerated, bear with me, for when you learn about this man’s achievements, you will certainly agree that he deserves it.

After all, Karapetyan, an Armenian-born Soviet finswimmer, won the world championship 17 times.

He is also a 13-time European champion, and a seven-time champion of his homeland, the USSR. Apart from this, Karapetyan broke the World Record 11 times.

One might say that he is the embodiment of finswimming itself.

However, what makes Karapetyan more than a champion fin swimmer are not the medals on his wall, but his relentless sacrifice for others.

In 1976, he personally saved 20 people from drowning after a trolley bus flew off the road and into a frozen lake near Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

But in order to understand his act of courage, we first need to take a peek into his life and career.

Perhaps the crucial experience that led Karapetyan to turn to professional swimming was his narrow escape from death as a 15-year-old. He was beaten up by a group of hoodlums who tied him to a rock and threw him into a nearby lake.

By strength alone, he managed to tear the ropes off his hands, liberate himself from the stone that was dragging him to the bottom, and swim out victorious. After this incident, he took up swimming, but due to petty rivalry was denied the right to compete on his national team.

So he switched to finswimming and quickly rose to prominence, winning a number of state-level competitions. By the age of 18, he was already the champion of the Soviet Union and just two months later, he became the European champion by breaking the World Record.

Envy followed him wherever he went, and there was even an attempt on his life by a fellow competitor who sabotaged his oxygen tank during a championship in Kiev. Even with this handicap, which nearly cost him his life, Karapetyan won the race.

He had another brush with death in 1974, when a bus he was riding on almost fell off a cliff. In the midst of panic, the swimmer took the steering wheel and carefully rode the bus into reverse, until reaching safety. Thirty lives, including his own, were saved on that day, thanks to his initiative.

But what followed defined the rest of his life. Two years after this incident, Karapetyan was conducting his usual morning exercise of running beside Yerevan Lake when a trolleybus hurtled past him and fell right into the frozen reservoir.

Due to the sheer power of the impact, most of the 92 passengers aboard lost consciousness, while their transport-turned-death trap was sinking to the bottom of the freezing lake. Without hesitation, the professional diver knew what to do.

He jumped into the water, broke the glass window of the trolleybus with his bare feet, and started pulling the people out.

The bus settled on the lake bed, 33 feet underwater and 80 feet from the shore, and Karapetyan had to make 30 consecutive dives in order to pull out as many people as he could. In the end, 20 of the passengers were saved. He managed to pull out more, but for some, it was already too late.

Even though the incident was a complete disaster, if it weren’t for his heroism, it would have been much worse. As for Karapetyan, the price was high. After his 30th dive, he lost consciousness himself, as a result of a lack of oxygen.

Later, the consequences of such a superhuman effort took hold─the swimmer was diagnosed with pneumonia and blood contamination from the polluted industrial water.

After a 46-day coma, the hero of Yerevan Lake finally woke up. Still, his career was over due to the extreme nervous exhaustion which took hold.

Even though one would expect that instant recognition was the least he deserved, the story of his heroism remained largely unknown until 1982, when an article was published in the state-wide newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, to commemorate his extraordinary feat.

Until then, the fact that it was the champion himself who saved all those people was known only to the locals of Yerevan.

After the article titled The Underwater Battle of the Champion, Karapetyan received 75,000 letters of praise and thanks and became a household name in the USSR.

Modest by nature, he never saw it as heroism. Rather, he was frustrated by the fact that so many others died in the crash that day. When asked in an interview about the event, he replied:

“I knew that I could only save so many lives, I was afraid to make a mistake. It was so dark down there that I could barely see anything. On one of my dives, I accidentally grabbed a seat instead of a passenger… I could have saved a life instead. That seat still haunts me in my nightmares.”

Since then Shavarsh Karapetyan had been celebrated and awarded a number of times, including two medals bestowed upon him by his own government, a UNESCO “Fair Play” award, and the honor of having an asteroid named after him: 3027 Shavarsh.

In 2014 he carried the torch for the Winter Olympics in Moscow, where he currently resides as the owner of a shoe shop called The Second Breath.

Karapetyan leads a quiet life below the radar, but the memory of his heroism remains as vivid as ever, for people never forget a champion.

 Nikola Budanovic


Nikola Budanovic is a freelance journalist who has worked for various media outlets such as Vice, War History Online, The Vintage News, and Taste of Cinema. His areas of interest include history, particularly military history, literature and film.

Norway’s Medieval Wooden Churches Look Plucked From a Fairy Tale

Starting in the Middle Ages, when Norway became a Christian country, former Vikings-turn-Christians built immense cathedrals and churches to honor the new religion—all made entirely from wood rather than the typical stone construction of the time. Known as “stave” churches, after the wooden “stavers” or corner posts and load-bearing pillars that keep the church from collapsing, these churches range from modest structures to ornate, multi-layer architectural masterpieces.

At one point, more than 1,000 stave churches existed throughout Norway, but many of the original ones fell apart over time or were destroyed. Often, the original stavers were driven directly into the ground, allowing for quick rot; other churches were ravaged by fires or storms. Now, only 28 historical stave churches remain, many of which feature elaborate carvings that mix Christian and Viking symbols.

These are the ten oldest in Norway:

Urnes Stave Church in Luster

Urnes Stave Church
Urnes Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Built about 1130, Urnes is Norway’s oldest stave church and the only one on the Unesco Heritage list. The site, though, is much older, and was home to two earlier churches. Parts of the previous churches, include a door opening, a corner post and several wall planks, were repurposed in the new construction. The northern wall features the most intricately decorated panel found in any existing stave church. The carvings, created in a traditional Viking style, show a snake biting and being bitten by another animal. The carvings combined with the Romanesque basilica layout make the church a fascinating example of the melding of pre-Christian Nordic symbology with Christian medieval influences. The church and cemetery are still in use today.

Hopperstad Stave Church in Vik

Hopperstad Stave Church
Hopperstad Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Hopperstad was also built around 1130, but unlike Urnes, much of the interior has been removed and replaced. Over the years, the original construction fell into disrepair and neglect. In the early 1880s, architect Peter Andreas Blix saw the historical significance of the church and offered to restore it free of charge. Blix based his restoration on other existing stave churches, but preserved the church’s original consecration crosses. Thanks to strong Norwegian heritage in the Midwest, there’s an exact replica of Hopperstad in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Kaupanger Stave Church in Sogndal

Kaupanger Stave Church
Kaupanger Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Twenty-two staves support this church, the largest number of all the remaining stave churches in Norway. Kaupanger is also the best preserved and is still the parish church used by the surrounding community today. Two previous churches stood here before the current church was built, one of which was partially burned as a consequence of a farmer’s revolt in 1183 that resulted in the governor Ivan Dape’s murder. The architecture at Kaupanger is fairly different from Norway’s other stave churches—emphasizing height rather than ornate carvings.

Undredal Stave Church in Undredal

Undredal Stave Church
Undredal Stave Church (Creative Commons)

From looking at it, one wouldn’t expect this tiny church to be in the same league as the other stave churches dotting Norway. White clapboard siding covers the exterior, making it look like a little chapel rather than a Viking-era relic. Undredal is one of the smallest historic wood churches, seating only about 40 people. A few artifacts are on display inside: the first bell and chandelier, dating back to the Middle Ages; a kneeler from 1647; candleholders from 1702; a 1680 baptismal font; the original wall paintings from the 1600s; and a pulpit from 1696. When the church was first built in 1147, it was called St. Nicholas Chapel.

Høyjord Stave Church in Vestfold

Høyjord Stave Church
Høyjord Stave Church (Creative Commons)

This church is half restoration, half reconstruction. The original layout of the church was built over twice, in the 1600s and the 1800s. In the 1950s, the stave foundation from the original medieval church was discovered, and it was rebuilt to match the original footprint. Originally, the church had a dirt floorand benches only along the sides for the elderly and infirm. Everyone else stood for services. The paintings on the walls inside are recreations, made to match décor on older parts of the church. Høyjord also has a stave supporting the church from the middle of the sanctuary, a feature found in only two stave churches in Norway.

Flesberg Stave Church in Buskerud

Flesberg Stave Church
Flesberg Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Originally, Flesberg was a simple rectangular stave church when it was built in the late 1100s. In the 1730s, it was expanded to a cross shape. The original church stands as the western arm of the cruciform. Church services and concerts are still held in the building in the summer. Flesberg also holds the honor of being the subject of the oldest existing painting of a stave church, a landscape from 1701.

Lom Stave Church in Oppland

Lom Stave Church
Lom Stave Church (Creative Commons)

From the time the church was built in the 1160s until the 1800s, Lom was used as both a church and a resting place for those traveling throughout the country. Remodeling began in the 1600s when the church was deemed too small and was expanded into a cruciform shape. It was expanded again in the 1660s, making it one of the largest stave churches in Norway. The carved dragon heads featured in the eaves are exact modern replicas, installed in 1964, so that the originals could be preserved.

Torpo Stave Church in Hallingdal

Torpo Stave Church
Torpo Stave Church (Creative Commons)

The Torpo church is the oldest building in Hallingdal. Built in the late 1100s, it is well known for a series of 13th-century paintings depicting the the martyrdom of St. Margaret, the saint the church was consecrated to. One of the more unique features in Torpo is an inscription on a chancel rail from the original builder. In runic script, it reads, “Torolf built this church.”

Hedalen Stave Church in Oppdal

Hedalen Stave Church
Hedalen Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Hedalen is yet another stave church that continues to be used as a parish church. It was built around 1163 and is decorated with dragon and vine carvings meant to represent the act of leaving behind evil forces as you enter the church. There’s a bearskin in the sacristy, and legend has it the skin belonged to a bear shot before the altar once the church was rediscovered in the woods after The Plague. The church holds some medieval relics, including a Madonna statue from 1250, a crucifix from 1270, and a font cover from 1250. The church’s prize possession is a copper-gilded wood reliquary, also from 1250. These artifacts are unique and rare throughout Norway as many Catholic objects were destroyed after the Reformation.

Nore Stave Church
Nore Stave Church (Creative Commons)

When Nore was built in the late 1160s, the construction was unique for the time: it was built as a choir church and has balconies, an apse, a choir and cross arms. A large amount of the original building is still standing, though it was remodeled and partially rebuilt in both the 1600s and 1700s. Some of the original decorative paintings can still be seen, as well as a prayer inscription and two crucifixes dating back to the Middle Ages.

Heddal Stave Church in Notodden

Heddal Stave Church
Heddal Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Though not in the top ten oldest stave churches, Heddal is the largest in Norway. It was first built around 1250, and as it’s still in continual use, visitors can see several historical eras reflected in the décor. Some of the prized items inside and on the exterior are rose paintings from the 1600s, runic inscriptions and carvings telling the Viking legend of Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer. There’s also a café, an exhibition about the history of the church, and an open-air historical museum of a farm and buildings from the 1700s and 1800s.

Dinosaur Shocker

Red blood cells (© Science) 

Neatly dressed in blue Capri pants and a sleeveless top, long hair flowing over her bare shoulders, Mary Schweitzer sits at a microscope in a dim lab, her face lit only by a glowing computer screen showing a network of thin, branching vessels. That’s right, blood vessels. From a dinosaur. “Ho-ho-ho, I am excite-e-e-e-d,” she chuckles. “I am, like, really excited.”

After 68 million years in the ground, a Tyrannosaurus rex found in Montana was dug up, its leg bone was broken in pieces, and fragments were dissolved in acid in Schweitzer’s laboratory at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “Cool beans,” she says, looking at the image on the screen.

It was big news indeed last year when Schweitzer announced she had discovered blood vessels and structures that looked like whole cells inside that T. rex bone—the first observation of its kind. The finding amazed colleagues, who had never imagined that even a trace of still-soft dinosaur tissue could survive. After all, as any textbook will tell you, when an animal dies, soft tissues such as blood vessels, muscle and skin decay and disappear over time, while hard tissues like bone may gradually acquire minerals from the environment and become fossils. Schweitzer, one of the first scientists to use the tools of modern cell biology to study dinosaurs, has upended the conventional wisdom by showing that some rock-hard fossils tens of millions of years old may have remnants of soft tissues hidden away in their interiors. “The reason it hasn’t been discovered before is no right-thinking paleontologist would do what Mary did with her specimens. We don’t go to all this effort to dig this stuff out of the ground to then destroy it in acid,” says dinosaur paleontologist Thomas Holtz Jr., of the University of Maryland. “It’s great science.” The observations could shed new light on how dinosaurs evolved and how their muscles and blood vessels worked. And the new findings might help settle a long-running debate about whether dinosaurs were warmblooded, coldblooded—or both.

Meanwhile, Schweitzer’s research has been hijacked by “young earth” creationists, who insist that dinosaur soft tissue couldn’t possibly survive millions of years. They claim her discoveries support their belief, based on their interpretation of Genesis, that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Of course, it’s not unusual for a paleontologist to differ with creationists. But when creationists misrepresent Schweitzer’s data, she takes it personally: she describes herself as “a complete and total Christian.” On a shelf in her office is a plaque bearing an Old Testament verse: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

It may be that Schweitzer’s unorthodox approach to paleontology can be traced to her roundabout career path. Growing up in Helena, Montana, she went through a phase when, like many kids, she was fascinated by dinosaurs. In fact, at age 5 she announced she was going to be a paleontologist. But first she got a college degree in communicative disorders, married, had three children and briefly taught remedial biology to high schoolers. In 1989, a dozen years after she graduated from college, she sat in on a class at Montana State University taught by paleontologist Jack Horner, of the Museum of the Rockies, now an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. The lectures reignited her passion for dinosaurs. Soon after, she talked her way into a volunteer position in Horner’s lab and began to pursue a doctorate in paleontology.

She initially thought she would study how the microscopic structure of dinosaur bones differs depending on how much the animal weighs. But then came the incident with the red spots.

In 1991, Schweitzer was trying to study thin slices of bones from a 65-million-year-old T. rex. She was having a hard time getting the slices to stick to a glass slide, so she sought help from a molecular biologist at the university. The biologist, Gayle Callis, happened to take the slides to a veterinary conference, where she set up the ancient samples for others to look at. One of the vets went up to Callis and said, “Do you know you have red blood cells in that bone?” Sure enough, under a microscope, it appeared that the bone was filled with red disks. Later, Schweitzer recalls, “I looked at this and I looked at this and I thought, this can’t be. Red blood cells don’t preserve.”
Schweitzer showed the slide to Horner. “When she first found the red-blood-cell-looking structures, I said, Yep, that’s what they look like,” her mentor recalls. He thought it was possible they were red blood cells, but he gave her some advice: “Now see if you can find some evidence to show that that’s not what they are.”

What she found instead was evidence of heme in the bones—additional support for the idea that they were red blood cells. Heme is a part of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood and gives red blood cells their color. “It got me real curious as to exceptional preservation,” she says. If particles of that one dinosaur were able to hang around for 65 million years, maybe the textbooks were wrong about fossilization.

Schweitzer tends to be self-deprecating, claiming to be hopeless at computers, lab work and talking to strangers. But colleagues admire her, saying she’s determined and hard-working and has mastered a number of complex laboratory techniques that are beyond the skills of most paleontologists. And asking unusual questions took a lot of nerve. “If you point her in a direction and say, don’t go that way, she’s the kind of person who’ll say, Why?—and she goes and tests it herself,” says Gregory Erickson, a paleobiologist at Florida State University. Schweitzer takes risks, says Karen Chin, a University of Colorado paleontologist. “It could be a big payoff or it could just be kind of a ho-hum research project.”

In 2000, Bob Harmon, a field crew chief from the Museum of the Rockies, was eating his lunch in a remote Montana canyon when he looked up and saw a bone sticking out of a rock wall. That bone turned out to be part of what may be the best preserved T. rex in the world. Over the next three summers, workers chipped away at the dinosaur, gradually removing it from the cliff face. They called it B. rex in Harmon’s honor and nicknamed it Bob. In 2001, they encased a section of the dinosaur and the surrounding dirt in plaster to protect it. The package weighed more than 2,000 pounds, which turned out to be just above their helicopter’s capacity, so they split it in half. One of B. rex’s leg bones was broken into two big pieces and several fragments—just what Schweitzer needed for her micro-scale explorations.

It turned out Bob had been misnamed. “It’s a girl and she’s pregnant,” Schweitzer recalls telling her lab technician when she looked at the fragments. On the hollow inside surface of the femur, Schweitzer had found scraps of bone that gave a surprising amount of information about the dinosaur that made them. Bones may seem as steady as stone, but they’re actually constantly in flux. Pregnant women use calcium from their bones to build the skeleton of a developing fetus. Before female birds start to lay eggs, they form a calcium-rich structure called medullary bone on the inside of their leg and other bones; they draw on it during the breeding season to make eggshells. Schweitzer had studied birds, so she knew about medullary bone, and that’s what she figured she was seeing in that T. rex specimen.

Most paleontologists now agree that birds are the dinosaurs’ closest living relatives. In fact, they say that birds are dinosaurs—colorful, incredibly diverse, cute little feathered dinosaurs. The theropod of the Jurassic forests lives on in the goldfinch visiting the backyard feeder, the toucans of the tropics and the ostriches loping across the African savanna.

To understand her dinosaur bone, Schweitzer turned to two of the most primitive living birds: ostriches and emus. In the summer of 2004, she asked several ostrich breeders for female bones. A farmer called, months later. “Y’all still need that lady ostrich?” The dead bird had been in the farmer’s backhoe bucket for several days in the North Carolina heat. Schweitzer and two colleagues collected a leg from the fragrant carcass and drove it back to Raleigh.

As far as anyone can tell, Schweitzer was right: Bob the dinosaur really did have a store of medullary bone when she died. A paper published in Science last June presents microscope pictures of medullary bone from ostrich and emu side by side with dinosaur bone, showing near-identical features.

In the course of testing a B. rex bone fragment further, Schweitzer asked her lab technician, Jennifer Wittmeyer, to put it in weak acid, which slowly dissolves bone, including fossilized bone—but not soft tissues. One Friday night in January 2004, Wittmeyer was in the lab as usual. She took out a fossil chip that had been in the acid for three days and put it under the microscope to take a picture. “[The chip] was curved so much, I couldn’t get it in focus,” Wittmeyer recalls. She used forceps to flatten it. “My forceps kind of sunk into it, made a little indentation and it curled back up. I was like, stop it!” Finally, through her irritation, she realized what she had: a fragment of dinosaur soft tissue left behind when the mineral bone around it had dissolved. Suddenly Schweitzer and Wittmeyer were dealing with something no one else had ever seen. For a couple of weeks, Wittmeyer said, it was like Christmas every day.

In the lab, Wittmeyer now takes out a dish with six compartments, each holding a little brown dab of tissue in clear liquid, and puts it under the microscope lens. Inside each specimen is a fine network of almost-clear branching vessels—the tissue of a female Tyrannosaurus rex that strode through the forests 68 million years ago, preparing to lay eggs. Close up, the blood vessels from that T. rex and her ostrich cousins look remarkably alike. Inside the dinosaur vessels are things Schweitzer diplomatically calls “round microstructures” in the journal article, out of an abundance of scientific caution, but they are red and round, and she and other scientists suspect that they are red blood cells.

Of course, what everyone wants to know is whether DNA might be lurking in that tissue. Wittmeyer, from much experience with the press since the discovery, calls this “the awful question”—whether Schweitzer’s work is paving the road to a real-life version of science fiction’s Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs were regenerated from DNA preserved in amber. But DNA, which carries the genetic script for an animal, is a very fragile molecule. It’s also ridiculously hard to study because it is so easily contaminated with modern biological material, such as microbes or skin cells, while buried or after being dug up. Instead, Schweitzer has been testing her dinosaur tissue samples for proteins, which are a bit hardier and more readily distinguished from contaminants. Specifically, she’s been looking for collagen, elastin and hemoglobin. Collagen makes up much of the bone scaffolding, elastin is wrapped around blood vessels and hemoglobin carries oxygen inside red blood cells.

Because the chemical makeup of proteins changes through evolution, scientists can study protein sequences to learn more about how dinosaurs evolved. And because proteins do all the work in the body, studying them could someday help scientists understand dinosaur physiology—how their muscles and blood vessels worked, for example.

Proteins are much too tiny to pick out with a microscope. To look for them, Schweitzer uses antibodies, immune system molecules that recognize and bind to specific sections of proteins. Schweitzer and Wittmeyer have been using antibodies to chicken collagen, cow elastin and ostrich hemoglobin to search for similar molecules in the dinosaur tissue. At an October 2005 paleontology conference, Schweitzer presented preliminary evidence that she has detected real dinosaur proteins in her specimens.

Further discoveries in the past year have shown that the discovery of soft tissue in B. rex wasn’t just a fluke. Schweitzer and Wittmeyer have now found probable blood vessels, bone-building cells and connective tissue in another T. rex, in a theropod from Argentina and in a 300,000-year-old woolly mammoth fossil. Schweitzer’s work is “showing us we really don’t understand decay,” Holtz says. “There’s a lot of really basic stuff in nature that people just make assumptions about.”

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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