Ugh!… Being useful? This is not what I signed up for!

As a palaeontologist, sometimes it can be difficult to justify what you do to the people down the local pub. From personal experience, I’ve learnt that when surrounded by a teacher, plumber, mechanic and farmer, announcing that the EU just gave you a substantial pot of money to look at 200 million year old dinosaur footprints for three years will not be met by a firm handshake, slap on the back, and being bought a drink! It will end in snorts, exclamations of ‘how does that further the world?’ and… well… the intent to slap is in there.

And, let’s be honest, that’s a fair enough reaction. It’s exactly the same reaction I might give to the same scenario in the humanities and arts (though I am an uncultured so-and-so).

We can get on our high horses and extoll the virtues of advancing knowledge, whatever that knowledge may be. I am a firm believer in Carl Sagan’s words that “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself,” and that ultimately knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a genuinely worthwhile pursuit. But it really doesn’t hold water with someone who does something that is directly useful like the above mentioned trades.

It was rather good news to hear then, that a NERC grant on which I am Co-I was funded this month, in which a team led by Prof. Matthew Bennett at Bournemouth University are bringing together footprint and computer scientists to develop techniques and software solutions for forensic scientists to use at crime scenes.

Essentially, we’re going to be using digitization and analysis methods developed in studying dinosaur and hominid tracks to document and analyse footprints left at crime scenes. And our aim is to produce a software package, that’s both easy to use and cost-effective. In fact, it will be so cost-effective that we’re hoping to make the software freely available.

Here’s a short article about it in Forensic Magazine.

So it turns out I’ll be devoting about 10% of my time over the next year to actually doing something useful to society. Definitely not the reason I became a palaeontologist!

Photogrammetric scan of a Hominid trackway from Roccamonfina, Italy, preserved in volcanic ash

Of course, to focus on the direct things like this is to miss what we do contribute, aside from knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Little things that are less tangible go a long way. The software I use in simulating footprints, both FEA and DEM is generally used for looking at the deformation of material, or particle motions, and bugs that I find, or improvements I make or suggest (however little) ultimately benefit the engineers and scientists who use those programs for useful things.

And then there’s the teaching and inspiring of future scientists – Dinosaurs and fossils are a great way to get kids interested in doing science, even if they ultimately become climate scientists, or microbiologists. And the knowledge garnered through basic research is ultimately useful to other fields and professions – at Brown almost all faculty members (and many post-docs) of the functional morphology group taught medical students about anatomy; who better than those studying how organisms are put together?

What I’m trying to say, is that funding blue-skies science is incredibly important. By definition you don’t know if it will be directly useful when setting out. Sometimes it is, and that’s great. Sometimes, as with the work on footprints, it turns out to be tangentially important in that it inspires research that does have direct benefits and applications. And sometimes, even when there is no obvious benefit, there are still a myriad ways that the research has contributed to the world. Not least of which – at least as far as I’m concerned – is simply generating more knowledge so that the Cosmos (including ourselves) may understand itself just a little bit better.

3 thoughts on “Ugh!… Being useful? This is not what I signed up for!

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  1. Peter, You mentioned deformation of Materials, like Mud, and how stratagraphic layers deform
    under the loading of dinosaur foot prints. There are some Sauropod Foot Prints viewed in cross-
    section from DINOSAUR RIDGE, near Morrison Colorado. The vertical penetration of the feet
    are about 40 inches for the right rear foot, and 30 inches for the left rear foot. the left rear foot is
    about 28 inches long, and the Step Length is 9 feet 7 inches. How do we calculate the volume,
    and weight of the animal from foot size, Step Length, and vertical Mud penetration ?

    Mike Clark, Golden Colorado, USA

    1. Hi Mike, you can get a rough idea of size from 4 x foot length = hip height (though that is quite rough). That’ll give you a general idea of the size of the animal, and if you know what kind of animal it is (i.e. a sauropod) you can get a handle on volume and mass from skeletons of a similar size. As to weight, I’m afraid that vertical penetration is almost entirely dependant on how wet and soft the sediment is, so you can’t really gauge how much an animal weighed from the depth of it’s tracks, though some people are working on that area:

  2. 4 times the foot length seems like a somewhat low number.
    The geometry does not seem to work out with a 28 inch long sauropod footprint, and a
    9 foot 7 inch long pace from center of Right Rear to center of Left Rear Foot, even though
    my observations show that the left rear foot print slid forward into the hole made by the
    left front foot, thus exaggerating the length of the Pace. I also have concluded that the Pace
    is not normal as the animal was working hard to get out of the Mud so the Pace was longer than
    it would be if it was just walking along on flat ground and leaving shallow footprints. From Models,
    that would make internal angles of 80 degrees to 83 degrees ( long legs ) versus
    ( 4 x 28 ) /12 = 9.33 foot ( shorter legs ) and a nearly 60 degree angle.
    Small dinosaurs, yes I can see a 60 degree angle between legs, but a Sauropod would be too
    large an animal for that to work. Their Pace and leg angle would be more restricted than that of
    modern elephants. They would need to keep their feet under them, thus the leg length would be
    much longer. I think I will measure the Other Pace lengths of the missing foot print to the a shallower
    footprint and see if it is a shorter Pace. I also have noticed that the mud balls along the side of the
    footprint are deformed into ellipses depending on the motion of how the foot moved in the
    hole ( sliding forward and down ).

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