Friday, 19 December 2014

Britain is no longer a country for and laments the loss of an old paleobiologist called Martin Brasier

Martin, who has died as the result of a motor accident at the age of 67, did more than any other scientist alive to increase our understanding of the beginnings of life on Earth.

What you possibly didn't know about Martin, that he : 

* was born in 1947 in Wimbledon, London and remembered that at primary school, at the age of 7 in 1954, listened to a BBC radio programme for children in which a reporter went back in a time machine and later recalled: “We did the Cambrian through to the Silurian, then the Devonian and early Carboniferous and earliest land animals and then dinosaurs and hominids. It was an extraordinary thing to do, back at that time” and, even at that young age, noticed that the Precambrian period wasn't mentioned, which piqued his interest.
* at the age of 13 in 1961, on the discovery by his elder brother Clive, who would go on to become one of the World's leading mycologists specialising in tree diseases, that a tree in the garden of their house in Lexden Road just outside Colchester, had died because there were Roman remains beneath it and recalled that they : "found a rubbish tip full of treasure and how wonderful for a thirteen year old boy to discover. And all my friends would dig and we would report it."

* over the next four years, religiously itemised the finds : Roman samian ware, Celtic pottery, wine amphorae, a military buckle and tunic items and said : "the whole thing ended with a burnt layer, so it was the Boudiccan burnt layer, so we can date these by their style as exactly between about 40 AD and 60 AD in the Claudian-Neronian period".

* found that, although his description of the dig was not published until 2005, he was smitten by the process of excavation and although he admitted : "It's not one of my highly cited papers, but it influenced me greatly and as a boy growing up in Colchester, there were always coins being dug up here, Roman coins and my earliest notes and identification of Roman coins."
* left school and in 1965, at the age of 18, began his undergraduate studies at Chelsea College of Science and Technology attached to the University of London on the King's Road, studying geology because “It combined biology and archaeology; stuff in the ground and life itself” and fell “head over heels in love with igneous rocks" and graduated with a first class BSc degree in 1968.
* knew he now wanted to look at the earliest time periods and in 1969 started his doctorate at the University of London and in 1970 at the age 23, was taken on as 'Ship's Naturalist' on HMS Fawn, working in the Royal Navy's Hydrographic Department on a year's cruise around the Caribbean.

* recalled at one point that : "We were sent out for a month to stop pirate raids on the coast of Cuba. What a thing to happen in the middle of you doctoral thesis" because the Royal Navy Frigates, Sirius and Jupiter (right), were 'unable to cope with the increasing trouble in the Caribbean and, horror of horrors, the Survey Navy has been called out to show the flag and fire the odd broadside.'
* found his doctoral work in the Caribbean, focussed on modern organisms, 'Foraminifera from the lagoons and surrounding waters of Barbuda' had "an enormous impact on my thinking and forced me to really get to grips with microfossils."
* having gained his doctorate in 1972, worked for a year as a micropalaeontologist, in the Palaeontology Department at the Institute of Geological Sciences, followed by a year as a temporary lecturer in the Geology Department, University of Reading, which allowed him to "spend a year on the survey mapping the Continental Shelf. but I had a yearn to get back to the earliest possible rocks and had the chance to look at Ediacaran and Cambrian fossils for the first time and this is something which really drew me in and I pushed further and further back in time."

* in 1974 started his thirteen year tenure as lecturer at Reading University in the Geology Department, in a time when the Cold War affected his research which "wasn’t that surprising. I knew that the best rocks tended to lie behind the Iron Curtain and they were therefore playing that for all they could get” and also found that trumping of Russian discoveries by the Chinese, 'didn’t go down well' and also remembered the worst meal he ever ate in Outer Mongolia, a ‘fricassee of lamb’s anal sphincter’, which  put him off eating lamb for two years.

* in his research, concentrated on fossils used to "calibrate and measure the Cambrian Explosion, trace fossils, small shelly fossils, beautiful fossils like the Burgess shale fossils and trilobites" and in 1978, at the age of 31, helped to organise for the Systematics Association, the first international symposium on the Explosion, bringing biologists, geologists and palaeontologists together for the first time.

* in 1988 started as Tutorial Fellow, St Edmund Hall and a ten year tenure as Lecturer in Geology, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford where he liked "the freedom to think outside the box, the strong intellectual atmosphere, the philosophical atmosphere and the traditions of scholarship and exploration at the frontiers” and in 1996 at the age of 49, was appointed Reader in Earth Sciences University of Oxford and in 2004 Professor of Palaeobiology.

* courted controversy in 2002 when, with colleagues, in an article in 'Nature' entitled : 'Questioning the evidence for the Earth's oldest fossils', dismissed the claims of the august American palaeontologist, J.William Schopf and in April at the NASA Astrobiology Conference in the antique dirigible hangar at Moffet Field, California, debated with Schopf , listened to him angrily provide data to back his claim to have found the earliest fossils, then began his rebuttal with : "Well, thank you Bill, for a truly hydrothermal performance. More heat than light, Perhaps ?"and proceeded to deliver salvo after salvo, while Bill paced up and down on the stage and won on a  'points decision' from the judges in the audience.

* in 2009, published his first popular science book, 'Darwin's Lost World' as a celebration of Darwin's 200th birthday and in answer to Darwin’s dilemma: 'Why, for 90% of Earth's history before the Cambrian trilobites and other animal fossils, there none at all ?, explained that the Precambrian fossils were there all along and paradoxically, the further back in time “the preservational quality gets better” and "it’s not that they weren’t seen before, it’s just that they weren’t recognised.”

* proceeded to take his detective story successively back in time, with his work in Mongolia, China, Newfoundland and Scotland, with amusing tales of scientific rivalry according to the 'MOFAOTYOF Principle' or 'My Oldest Fossils Are Older Than Your Oldest Fossils' along the way and in his own words explained :

* in 2011, working with a team led by David Wacey looking at fossils, found in a remote part of Western Australia, preserved between the quartz sand grains of the oldest shoreline known on Earth, announced that : 'At last we have solid evidence for life over 3.4 billion years ago. It confirms there were bacteria at this time, living without oxygen'.

* in 2012 published 'Secret Chambers : The inside story of cells and complex life' because
'each and every cell is like a secret chamber surrounded by a protective wall, but also because its existence was entirely unknown until the invention of the microscope' and focussing on the period from 1 to 2 billion years ago, once dubbed 'the boring billion', demonstrated how it involved early potential with the formation of the complex, 'eukaryotic' cell, a fundamental turning point in the history of life on Earth, without which  there would be nothing today, except bacteria :

* in August this year, with Alexander Liu, announced that they had uncovered the fossil of a muscle-bearing organism which thrived, in what is now Newfoundland during the Ediacaran period, interpreted as a member of the cnidarian group containing modern animals such as corals, sea anemones and jellyfish and suggesting that animals had a much earlier origin than previously thought.

* in June this year received the prestigious 'Lyell Medal' from the Geological Society of London, for his key Contributions to 'Scientific Understanding of Biotic Events leading up to the Cambrian Explosion of Animal Life'.

* having retired from academic duties last year, in September this year, to mark his retirement, took centre stage in a symposium : 'Evolution and Early Life : A Celebration of the Career of Martin Brasier on his Retirement' as an educator, mentor, supporter, promoter, collaborator, critic and friend, enjoyed a  special celebratory dinner in St Edmund Hall, followed by piano recitals and finishing with, he himself, providing a short tutorial on early jazz piano technique.

* when asked by 'Oxford Today' in 2010 : "Palaeontology is an old discipline. Is it still important ?" Answered poetically :

Palaeontology has
The best questions.
It’s all about perspective.
How did life begin?
What does the future hold?

Palaeontology shows us how
Tenuously beautiful our existence is.

Most of what I have to say,
Is relevant to looking for life
On other planets.
So I would really call myself
an astrobiologist.

Looking at life in the universe
From a very large perspective.
When our lives are so short,
 It is quite nice to have this
Vicarious experience of
The hugeness of the system.

* in 2010 said : 'The Cambrian Explosion was a real and entirely natural event, as were the wave of extinctions that followed.
What a wonderful world !'

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