Imagination is more important than knowledge.
-- Albert Einstein
Olympians aim for gold medals; pro football teams strive to win the Super Bowl; actors aspire for Oscars. But what are the metrics of success for natural scientists? They are often defined as personal eureka moments after decades of field work, including the discovery of a new species, unearthing a new fossil, or identifying a pollinator after years of treetop observation.
Did Darwin jump for joy when he first saw the Galapagos finches? Did Rachel Carson take time out to drink champagne when she figured out the link between pesticides and declining songbirds?
In natural sciences, most discoveries are not typically celebratory like the outcome of a Super Bowl but require thousands of hours of data collection to produce a result often defined as 90 percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration.
Dr. Dan Ksepka, paleontologist at N.C. State and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, recently hit a proverbial home run in natural science circles, sharing two major discoveries. Ksepka was part of a team that uncovered the worlds largest penguin, a New Zealand fossil that stood over 4 feet tall back in the Oligocene period.
Several months later, Ksepka shared another spotlight with N.C. State Ph.D. student Edwin Cadena to announce another new species: one of the largest turtles ever, discovered at a coal mine in Cadenas native country of Colombia. Billed as larger than a smart car, this enormous fresh-water turtle lived some 58 million years ago alongside 50-foot snakes and larger-than-life alligators.
Such fossil discoveries took several years to unearth and write up for publication, but now represent important puzzle pieces to reconstruct how animals in the fossil record dealt with changes in global temperatures. When asked about the emotion of these eureka discoveries, Ksepka said, Nothing is more exciting than being the first person to lay eyes on a fossil.
These fossil giants were among the first major global scientific discoveries announced at North Carolinas new Nature Research Center. With its SECU Daily Planet multi-media theater that connects to all K-12 students in North Carolina, plus international audiences, the NRC is the worlds first science hub dedicated to announcing scientific discoveries.
Most federal research grants today require scientists to share their findings with the public. And when scientists share their discoveries with students under the spotlights of the NRC, they may inspire the next generation of scientists.
Meg Lowman is an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert who directs the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Online: www.canopymeg.com.