Picture this scene: A woman stands alone in the desert. She’s wearing all beige clothing. She has lots of pockets. A sweat-soaked rag is tied around her neck, and she uses it to wipe her brow after she lifts up her hat.
She bends down and brushes away some dirt. A confused look comes over her face. Then her eyes brighten. She smiles, maybe laughs a little. Then she reaches down and gently pulls up—a rock? No, it’s a fossil!
Some version of that scene has been in movies for decades. Depending on the film in question, the fossil that the scientist finds is evidence that something is wrong with the Earth, a terrible weather event is coming, or dragons are real.
While scientists don’t actually find dragons, they do find all kinds of amazing things—like dinosaurs, evidence of historic climate changes, ancient civilizations, and more. But do their discoveries really happen like the movies depict?
A real scientist weighs in
“There’s what I call a truthiness about these movies,” Dr. Christine Metzger told us. They get some things exactly right, but other parts are “just nonsense.”
Metzger would know. She earned a doctorate in geological and earth sciences from the University of Oregon and has done field work across the globe, digging up fossils to bring home and study in a lab to learn about what the Earth was like hundreds of millions of years ago. She’s also taught a class about the bad science shown in movies for the past ten years.
She tells us that the science in these movies is typically pretty bad. Take Jurassic Park—it doesn’t even get the name right. “Most of the dinosaurs were from the Crustaceous period, not the Jurassic,” Metzger said.
The depiction of how scientists make discoveries is all wrong, too. Often, movies show paleontologists delicately pulling perfect fossils out of the dirt. That’s not the reality in most places.
“The paintbrush is not the tool I used most when I was in the field,” Metzger told us. “You’re usually using a hammer, a pick, or a shovel. It’s definitely not as easy as just brushing dust off a perfectly preserved skeleton.”
In some cases, it’s true that fossils actually are very easy to find. Metzger taught a TIP class on paleontology in New Mexico in 2018. At that site, there were fossils everywhere, falling out of the rocks. But they aren’t very exceptional fossils, scientifically—though they are pretty amazing, because they are 250 million years old.
The devils in the details
If you think about it, it makes sense that you aren’t likely to find rare, preserved fossils in places where lots of people live. Most of those fossils were likely found a long time ago. So a lot of scientists have to travel to far away, remote places to do their research.
But that means scientists spend more time planning to go dig for fossils than they do actually digging.
“I went to Antarctica as part of my PhD research; you don’t think about how you actually get a group of people to Antarctica.” Metzger said. It’s a lot of planning for flights and boats. But things aren’t much easier once you reach the continent, because you still have to get from the research station out to where you are digging.
“We would pack all of our food into these little crates, and then we’d go out into the field and hammer out rocks looking for these particular plant fossils,” Metzger explained. “And then all of the rocks we collected were put into the wooden crates [after they ate the food], and we’d ship the rocks out on a big pallet that was put on a boat. We’d get our rocks back to us months after we got home.”
All that work is pretty difficult, too. Metzger also told us about her time in South Dakota. “We’d get up at four or five o’clock in the morning so we could get out as soon as it was light because by midday, it would be well over 110 degrees,” she said. “You’re baking on these very light rocks.”
There were also dangers like rattlesnakes and buffalo. And the whole research group getting food poisoning while living together in a trailer with one bathroom.
Even true stories about historic fossil discoveries give a slightly false picture of what the life of these scientists are like.
“Science becomes this sort of black box where what you see is the discovery or the exceptional moment, and you don’t see all of the years and hours and decades of hard work that it takes to get there,” Metzger said.
She uses her research from Antarctica as an example. After she received all those crates of rocks, she had to catalogue them all. Then she’d have to prepare all of them to be analyzed for different chemical elements so she knew what was in them.
Then came the really boring part: Metzger would cut little slivers of the rocks, polish them, and then glue them onto glass slides and look at them one by one under a microscope. She’d look at five hundred points on each sliver, using a clicker to count different things related to her research. She had to do that twice—a thousand times total—for each of fifty samples.
“Hours and hours and hours sitting in a dark room with a microscope looking at very tiny grains of rocks,” Metzger said. “It was very boring.”
Moments of magic
All of that detailed work can be a drain, so why bother? Because those magical moments of discovery make it worthwhile.
“If you asked a hundred field scientists, ninety-nine of them would tell you why they do it is because of that month or whatever part of the year that they get to go out into the field,” Metzger said.
She explains by pointing to one thing that Jurassic Park did get right. “There’s a scene where the two scientists see the dinosaurs for the first time. They can’t believe their eyes, and they’re just in awe of these dinosaurs.”
“That is something that I think about as a paleontologist,” she said. “When I was studying these extinct mammals in my masters degree, I would dream about them at night. My brain would just fill in what they thought about and what they looked like. I think that scene in Jurassic Park captured that part of the mystery that I love about paleontology.”
All the long, hard days. All the planning. All the time in front of a microscope. It all adds together to make future discoveries possible, and to help us better understand the world we live in.
“Science makes big leaps in knowledge, but those leaps are proceeded by lots of tiny, tiny steps by lots of people,” Metzger said.