‘It’s like Star Trek every day’: Science links up with creativity


Jessica Shih and Anna Masciandaro

WASHINGTON—You’re at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Walk into an exhibit—let’s say the Bone Hall, which boasts life-size fossil skeletons of long-gone species. Doing so may not feel like anything special, but for paleobiology curator Mr. Nicholas Pyenson, it’s a beautiful, scenic promenade that takes him through ancient evolutionary history.

Historical and visual aesthetics aside, there’s no such thing as a dull workday in the paleobiology curator realm, as evidenced by Pyenson’s 15-year tenure.

“My job is just to explore,” he said. “It’s like Star Trek every day, which totally appeals to my inner 10-year-old self.”

Besides appealing to the wondrous mysticality of sci-fi culture, paleobiology also presents itself as an interdisciplinary occupation.

“There’s a quote I like to live by: ‘Being a paleobiologist is walking through ancient environments like a geologist, but thinking like a biologist,’ ” he said. “So, I wear two hats: the hat of a biologist and the hat of a geologist. And depending on the kind of question I want to answer, I need to wear one or the other, or even both at once.”

Along with constantly switching between scientific mentalities, paleobiology presents another challenge: playing detective.

“Something happened, and you want to figure it out,” he said. “You certainly don’t get all the clues, so you have to ask good questions. The better you phrase them, the more likely you’re going to get the answer you need.”

Pyenson also emphasized the danger of posing broad questions like, “How did whales come to be what they are today?” Sure, these types of questions drive curiosity—a trait all inquiring minds must possess—but it lacks another attribute all scientists must have: creativity.

“I did a lot of art when I was little, and I graduated college as an English major,” Pyenson said. “So, being a creative person has helped me a lot in devising scientific questions.”

And in terms of field work, he and his team constantly travel the world in search of the next big marine animal fossil. Within the Smithsonian Institution’s vast collection of more than 40 million fossils lies some of Pyenson’s greatest work: the excavation of Cerro Ballena, a graveyard of 40 whale skeletons in Chile.

“Just looking at one of these skeletons was mind-blowing, especially when there were 40 of them at the site. It wasn’t so much that there were full skeletons—they were far from that—as it was the question: ‘What was going on that led 40 whales to perish a long distance away from where the rest of the species thrived?’”

Now, revisualize the Bone Hall. This time, do what Pyenson does and stop for a moment. While you pause at a fossil to take in all its grandeur, ponder those questions that beg an answer (Why did this animal have the trait it had? How was said trait useful as the species evolved?). Then, and only then, can you fully appreciate what paleobiologist curators like Pyenson have to offer.