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From Dinosaurs to Rocket Ships


Dinosaurs to rocket science: it is not a straight line between paleontology and rocket ships, but there is a path and I learned all about it at a recent Gallagher Colloquium held at the University of Calgary.

Sir Horace Walpole, Earl of Oxford coined the word serendipity in 1754 to denote 'accidental discoveries'. When people say, "Chance favors the prepared mind," they are quoting Louis Pasteur. When I consider the research career of Dr. Gregory Erickson, it cannot be attributed to either serendipity or chance. His list of academic achievements demonstrates that he has a prepared mind and if any quote applies, it is Wayne Gretzky when he says: "I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been."

Dr. Erickson has a Ph.D. from Berkeley. He followed that up with a Post Doc studying Biomechanical Engineering at Stanford University, then undertook more preparation by doing Post Doc work in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University. He is now, among other credentials, Professor of Anatomy and Vertebrate Paleobiology at Florida State University as well as their curator for the Biological Science Museum.

I was intrigued by what I might learn at the UCalgary presentation titled 'Complex dental structure and biomechanics in non-avian dinosaurs'. When I was preparing to attend the Gallagher Colloquium, I discovered that I had previously seen Dr. Erickson on the BBC television documentary 'The Truth About Killer Dinosaurs' that had been rebroadcast within the last year on one of the science specialty channels in my area.

Dr. Erickson began his talk by reminding us that we like dinosaurs because, as children, they were our first exposure to science and the scientific method. He asked us to be aware that most of his presentation is based on the underlying theme of form and function.

We learned that, unlike reptiles, mammals have large dental grinding surfaces composed of complex enamels. The study of mammal evolution shows that when these large chewing teeth developed, mammals were able to evolve into many different niches. Studies by Erickson and colleagues have noted parallels in dinosaurs such as Hadrosaurs when they earlier and independently developed large and complex grinding teeth, allowing them also to radiate into many different niches.

Erickson asked us to imagine a grazing animal such as a horse and how much of their eating habits lead them to take in small silica pieces from the soil. I shuddered to remember when I broke a tooth biting into an unseen hard seed. Horse tooth enamel has evolved in such a way as to prevent small cracks from running. Erickson’s research demonstrates similar patterns found in dinosaur teeth to prevent a broken tooth.

Skating towards where the puck is going, Erickson and his lab are pursuing the opportunity to apply their findings about design in nature to develop new strong ceramics for uses not yet known, but the sky is not the limit. As Buzz Lightyear said, “To infinity and beyond!

Photo credit: Thanks to my friend David Lloyd for providing me with his photo ‘Hadrosaur jaw - occlusal view of teeth’ to illustrate the large grinding teeth found in an Alberta dinosaur.

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From Dinosaurs to Rocket Ships

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