Cops on TV always arrive at the scene of the crime mere moments after it’s committed. But when paleontologist Jason Poole goes to work—when he starts digging in the dirt—he’s searching for clues that have remained hidden for millions of years. We caught up with him recently to talk about art, dyslexia and how pickaxes and laptops help him solve some of the planet’s oldest mysteries.
Let’s cut to the chase. There are people out there right now working jobs they hate: toilet scrubbers, insurance claims adjusters, junior customer service specialists. How did you grow up to be a dinosaur hunter (and where can we apply)?
When I was a kid it was normal for parents to tell kids to go outside and play. This was every day. My folks and my brother and I did a lot outside—weekend camping trips, etc. As an adult, I love the outside as a place to be. When I was young we used to go collect fern fossils. One afternoon my father said something that has stuck with me all my life. We were splitting shale to find ferns and we found one but I was getting bored. My father leaned in and said, “You know, no one has ever seen this fossil before. When it died, there were no people to see it. We are the first.”
Cool! I understand you like to dig by day and draw by night. Are you really a “paleontology artist” in your spare time? And which came first: the fossils or the art?
Both. I am very dyslexic. So I doodled a lot as a kid. I cannot spell to save my life but drawing was a great way for me to prove that my brain was working. I learned to draw copying from comic books, which also helped me with reading. At the time I was into comics with lots of dinosaurs in the stories. So I started drawing them.
That is where my love of fossils and art collided. I realized that everything we know about dinosaurs starts with fossils. When I think about it, much of my love of doing field work comes from early experiences of being outside camping, finding bones (I had my own collection) and digging in the backyard. Bottom line: there is no better inspiration or teacher than the outdoors.
No argument here. So what goes on in Elk Basin, Montana? Are there really fields full of dinosaur bones?
What goes on in the basin where we work in Montana and Wyoming is largely figuring out what went on in the basin millions of years ago. We are lucky that the same forces that lifted the Beartooth Mountains also brought layers of rock to the surface containing fossils from the time of the dinosaurs. It is also a place that has little to no things growing on it, so we can see the rocks.
Amazing. Outside of Montana and Wyoming, where have you gone on digs and what are the greatest/strangest discoveries you’ve made along the way?
I have worked in Egypt, where we discovered a super-massive dinosaur we named Paralititan and in Argentinean Patagonia where we found and named another super-massive dinosaur Dreadnoughtus, which was a fairly complete skeleton. The strangest discovery, though, was not the thing that was discovered but the way it was discovered. While on my first dinosaur dig back in 1999, I found a new specimen of Allosaurus while heeding the call of nature. The specimen was nicknamed Urinator.
A private moment immortalized—I love it. The classic tools of your trade are brushes and pickaxes but of course you also use cutting-edge computers such as your Yoga 900 laptop. When you’re out in the field, how do you strike the right balance between the primitive and the technological?
Rocks and fossils have not changed in the last 160 years since we started doing paleontology in the Americas. Brushes, plaster, rock-hammers and wide-brimmed hats are all staples of field work. Over the last 10 years or so, the use of laptops like my Yoga 900 and my Lenovo tablet are becoming more and more a part of the kit we carry and make use of daily in the field.
The ability to share visual and written data and ideas with colleagues on the other side of the planet is a huge help. Also, the use of GPS and digital maps help with locality data capture. One of my favorite things is the ability to draw or highlight things on photos on the touch screen before I send them to other team members. This makes discussing features of bones, position of rocks or even map localities very quick and easy. Some of the sights even have Wi-Fi so I can send info to the team as things happen or need to happen. Recently, we have been using a drone to capture bone bed mapping data, which totally rocks! (Yep, I went there.)
(Rim shot.) Technology is so pervasive now, particularly in the era of smartphones. I wonder: how has that affected the experience of being in remote areas where you work. I mean, I know it can be useful but does it take away some of the magic too?
A bit. But it is fun to watch people realize that their connection to the web is gone in some of the places we work. Often people are a bit freaked being disconnected. My favorite question related to this was “How are we supposed to know the weather?!” to which I replied, “Pick up this rock. If it looks dry and feels warm that tells us that the weather is sunny and hot. We can check again later but it will most likely be sunny and hot.” Honestly, we do have to keep an eye on the clouds. Rain can be a problem and storms can sneak up fast.
It is hard to remember a time before smartphones, isn’t it? Geek out with us for a moment now and tell us a little more about how you use your Yoga in the field. Yoga nerds want to know!
I use my Yoga for data capture, e-mail, lists, shared lists, photo management, mapping, field sight and dig crew management. And I send pictures of the cool stuff we find to my daughter Izzy in Philadelphia. I use the keyboard and the touch screen often in the same session. I often use the Lenovo laptop for teaching moments and the tablet for taking photos, stargazing and constellation identification and playing music.
Quite the variety. OK, finally, I was excited to learn you were from Philadelphia—some of the coolest people I know (shout-out to graffiti artist Juan Dimida and Dan Thomas aka DJ Dilemma) hail from Philly. I heard somewhere you were a fan of “Nerd Nite” in Philly—what the heck is Nerd Nite anyway?
Philadelphia has been the scientific center of the Americas as far back as 150 years ago. Philly is enjoying a renaissance of all things nerd. Some of my co-conspirators in paleontology have embraced the term "Action Nerd" for who we are. Nerd Nite is a series of gatherings that embraces all things Nerdy. I have presented at several events tied to Nerd Nite and hope to do more soon. Science and Philadelphia are wicked cool together, as it should be.
Thanks a bunch for taking the time & best of luck on your next dig. Where are you headed next?
My next dig will be more Jurassic rocks in the basin. I hope to return to Egypt when politics there get a bit more settled. It amazes me how often bad politics gets in the way of good science. Thanks again for chatting. Love the Lenovos! Keep on science-ing!
Thanks to our good friends at Intel for, um, digging up Jason and this remarkable paleo-project.
Gavin O’Hara is the Director of Lenovo's Brand Newsroom.