We know what paleontology is concerned with-it deals with extinct plants and animals. But why should one take the trouble and pick in the relics of organisms gone ages ago? What's the use? To find out, your correspondent Rudolf Balandin has interviewed a person well in the know-Dr. Alexei Rozanov, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Director of the RAS Institute of Paleontology. Here's the transcript of their conversation.
- Now, many of us have a hazy knowledge of your field of research: you at your institute are collecting fossilized conchs and animals (you have whole collections of them!). You are taking pains to reconstitute the body and form of the animals of long ago. And so forth. A natural question: what's the practical use of all that?
- Well, those who have read Plutonia, a sci-fi novel by Academician Vladimir Obmchev, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his The Lost World, Michael Crayton's Jurassic Park Period ought to know. Those who have seen films about prehistoric animals know too that the material is based on paleontological evidence. But this is only part of the actual truth. Paleontology, you see, is a very pragmatic science, even though its theoretical significance is great as well.
- Pragmatic? But how?
- Together with Academician Boris Sokolov, we have made a rough estimate: to sink a deep well in search of hydrocarbons you've got to shell out a sum equal to the annual budget of our institute. Hundreds and even thousands of like wells are drilled countrywide. And from 15 to 20 percent more of such wells have to be sunk unless paleontological evidence is used.
- Because studying fossils we can determine the age and occurrence of strata, and pinpoint geological structures and productive horizons. Drilling people, of course, learn a lot from geophysical and geochemical bits of evidence. But these data cannot substitute for paleontological evidence which makes it possible to detail the age of rocks and their origin, compare a particular horizon with other ones that have been studied well enough. Should gas- and oilmen take our work in good earnest in terms of its practical significance, their drilling expenses could be cut by 10 percent. And there would be enough money left for keeping a dozen research institutes like ours.
- Do geologists turn to you?
- Here in Russia, they do not. It's a paradox, but foreign firms are the sole beneficiaries of our work and findings. We are cooperating with experts in America, Australia and other countries, and in turn, get a chance for extra theoretical research.
- But what do foreigners get from you-after all, you are involved with Russia's territory?
- No, we are also researching elsewhere all over the world, in particular, we are making stratigraphic studies enabling us to determine with higher accuracy the age of sedimentary rocks. Say, our data have allowed to map out an optimal strategy in prospecting for hydrocarbons in South Australia where first oil shows have been detected.
- The rich fauna of the Vendian period has been studied in those parts...
- It is otherwise known as the Ediacarian period. Yet the most interesting, rich and intriguing materials on the Vendian organisms that lived 560 - 600 mln years ago are in our collection. Our research team under Dr. Mikhail Fedonkin, RAS Corresponding Member, is making a close study *
* See: M. Fedonkin, "Glimps Into 600 Million Years Ago", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2001. -Ed
- Is there any hope for our country making an active use of paleontological evidence in practice ?
- Yes, sure. I hope major petroleum and gas companies will set up good geological services. True, these companies are running a string of small services like that, but they are in no way on a par with the challenges of the industry, let alone economic benefits that could come from paleontological data.
- So, paleontology helps us take our bearings in the eternal night of the earth's interior, as the great Russian savant Mikhailo Lomonosov has put it. Thus you cut the prospecting expenses. Is that all to your science ?
- No. Today we see a new field of knowledge, bacterial paleontology, developing by leaps and bounds. Microorganisms are involved in the formation of nearly all sedimentary deposits. This is an utterly new vision of the genesis, or origin, of oil and gas accumulations, and also of many other useful deposits like iron, uranium, gold, phosphates.
- Eighty years ago Academician Vladimir Vernadsky founded the science of biogeochemistry. He proceeded from the fact that microorganisms are proliferating at enormous rates; implicated in the highly intensive metabolism with the environment, they exhibit superactivity geochemically.
- Here, as is often the case, theoretical thought has run far ahead of practice. We are much better off now, what with the most up-to-date research techniques and technologies, enabling us to make a good study of most diverse bacteria and find their trace amounts in sedimentary rocks and ores. So we can now pass from general assumptions and conclusions to quite concrete estimates in exploring for useful minerals. By the way, our institute is getting ready for publication of a monograph, Bacterial Ore Formation. This is a down-to-earth line in our work, so to speak. But there is a cosmic one, too: bacterial paleontology is allied to astrobiology.
- As a matter of fact, this research line harks back to Gavriil Tikhov, Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, who took it up about fifty years ago. He compared spectrograms of the Martian and Venusian atmosphere with the same characteristics of the plant kingdom on earth, and postulated the existence of extraterrestrial forms of vegetation.
- This is the past age of planetology. Today high-precision hardware is used in Mars and Venus studies. * But ET higher plants are out of the question. As to bacteria, that's quite different. But how will you detect them in the absence of samples? We should take a close look at meteorites carrying vestiges of microorganisms. We are conducting such studies jointly with the US National Aerospace Agency (NASA).
- I see, the range of scientific interests of your institute is vast indeed-beginning with the distant past of the earth, the evolution of its biosphere and the genesis of useful deposits, and ending with ETlife...
- That's not all, far from it. You've mentioned the evolution of the biosphere. This is a thrilling question, both theoretically and philosophically. Here paleontology furnishes a wealth of precious evidence enabling an understanding of the origins of life on earth, its changes and development since time immemorial. We call this line of our research "Eco-systemic Restructurings and Evolution of the Biosphere". It is an important component of the State Research Program "Global Changes of the Environment and Climate" (with Academician Nikolai Laverov in charge).
- This must take in paleoecology and historical geology, reconstruction of environmental conditions and their changes in the distant past?
* See: I. Mitrofanov, "Unlocking Martian Enigmas", Science in Russia, No. 6, 2002. -Ed
- Overall, it takes in the construction of theoretical models of the biosphere's development. In these past few decades there has been a good deal of talk about the ecology of man, environmental pollution, technogenic modification of landscapes, and what not. However, one overlooks an important question about the natural course of events, about the laws and regularities of natural crises. We can visualize the future only if we know all that, and if we compare it with what comes as a result of human activity.
- So we should learn from Mother Nature in our doings? But we are reforming it after our fashion.
- Some of my colleagues reason like this: that humans should accommodate to become part and parcel of natural processes in the biosphere. In theory, this is a correct approach, though not realistic: man is still "going the whole hog" and keeps exploiting nature. This scheme of things will hardly change soon. Time and again we hear: we are moving into an age of the noo-sphere, the age of reason. This is a bad delusion, as I take it. The interests of Homo sapiens are in stark contradiction with the biosphere's principia: man is not prone to parsimony. He plunders natural resources accumulated over billions of years, he poisons water, air and soil. That's why Mother Nature kicks over the traces. New pathogenic bacteria are just one example. In a nutshell, we should get to know the natural ways of life so as to learn how to coexist with it in the first place.
- Is the present crisis of the biosphere caused by human activity comparable to biological and geological crises of the dim past?
- To answer this question we should make a thorough study of natural crises. That's what we are doing. We have got an insight into some of the important laws and regularities, but that's the subject in its own right.
- Still and all, what was the cause of a global disaster that killed the dinosaurs, as many scientists will believe? There's a hypothesis that has gained wide currency: the disaster was triggered by an asteroid which collided with the earth. Telecasts in the series "Walking with Dinosaurs" and "History of the Earth " had a colored de-
scription of that event. What do you think of such kind of boosts given to scientific hypotheses?
- This is a pat journalistic trick meant to build up something unusual, out of the way, into a sensation.
- Not quite so. First, Dr. Louis Alvarez of the United States and co-workers advanced this idea twenty-five years ago, and it got support from the world scientific community. And only then didpopularizers move in.
- In this particular case, no due account was taken of the available paleontological evidence. It is intriguing, this evidence: dinosaurs were so "shrewd" as to start leaving this world long before the asteroid's fall (an event that occurred just between the Cretaceous and the Paleogene, that is around 65 mm years ago). A
large number of Dinosaurian families died out then. * According to Dr. Alvarez, some of the rocks dating back to that time show an enhanced concentration of iridium which is attributed to the asteroid.
And yet: the extinction of individual groups of organisms (as well as their birth for that matter) has been part of life's history on earth. Many explanations have been suggested for the extinction of dinosaurs, with the asteroid hypothesis among them. That's a most dubious hypothesis. In their works research scientists of our institute have proved it abundantly clear on the basis of concrete factual material: that mass extinctions never occur all of a sudden as it would otherwise have been in consequence of a cosmic catastrophe. Rather long phases precede such extinctions when species-specific diversity starts diminishing, and then comes a "precipitous" downfall.
- Such kind of regularity invites sad thoughts. What if the anthropogenic impact on the biosphere that has been on for thousands of years could have come to a critical pass now to precipitate a catastrophe soon ?
- Paleontological materials alone cannot answer this question. A paleontologist studies the course of natural processes, including significant ecological restructurings. In any case, regardless of the harm done to
* See: Yu. Avsyuk et al., "Did Dinosaurs Die Out Suddenly?", Science in Russia, No. 3, 2002. -Ed
it by man, the biosphere will survive and emerge victorious in the end. The earth's biosphere has been in existence for 4.7 bin years at least, and it has lived through many crises, small and big, even global crises. The present crisis is a peculiar one, and its consequences bear directly on humankind's future.
- So: paleontology brings us practical use in mineral prospecting. It provides valuable materials on the evolution of the earth and life on it, and thus helps man coexist with the biosphere.
- There is yet another important side to it. Our institute is under the same roof as the Paleontological Museum, a major cultural and educational center. In my view, it is just as peerless as Moscow's Tretyakov Picture Gallery, History Museum or the Armory in the Moscow Kremlin. It is a significant element of culture. We are not only reconstructing extinct animals and plants as they looked in real life, we are also disseminating knowledge on our planet's geological past. Ecological ethics and education are the perennial subject now. But ecological consciousness will hardly take root unless we are aware of the history of life on earth, right? Humans should feel they are particles of the biosphere intimately allied to it, to its evolution. But ecological awareness should be instilled as early as one's childhood. Enlightenment and education, however, is beyond the scope of our work. We are a research institution after all. - Your research priorities?
- Description of the available paleontological evidence. This is the foundation without which sundry hypotheses and theories are like castles in the air. Such is our routine work. As to theoretical studies, they are carried out at the interlaboratory level by research teams specializing according to their interests. The program "Ecosystemic Restructurings and Evolution of the Biosphere" is one example. We cannot cope with studying all fossile groups. We'll need then a staff of 600 or 700, while we have but 110. So we are concentrating on the most interesting areas of practical significance. Prioritizing is a thankless and even dubious job. We cannot tell what problems will move to the foreground in a few years.
- Any problems with the brain drain?
- None at all. None of our 42 Doctors of Sciences has left. It's prestige to work at our Paleontological Institute to any scientist, be it from Germany, France, Britain or the USA. Foreign researchers are proud of an opportunity to work with us.
- As I understand, the science on extinct organisms is now in its efflorescence?
- We might put it this way. Prior to the 19th century our science was solely involved with collecting and classification of fossilized conchs, bones and imprints of plants and animals. Subsequently paleontology provided the basis of geochronology and stratigraphy, it helped determine the sequence of sedimentary layers and break geological history into eras, periods and smaller time spans.
Paleontology thus attained to great practical significance. It is clear now: we shall not understand the essence of the present ecological crisis and its consequences if we don't know the biosphere's past.
It's a fact: the main cause of our conflicts with the environment and the biosphere lies in our inadequate ecological education and consciousness, in our poor ability of communicating with nature. In this sense paleontology emerges as a significant element of culture for millions of people.
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