Particle physics with a paleontological twist

Posted: July 5, 2013 10:15 a.m.

Professor Mauricio Barbi in the quarry preparing a specimen to be moved to the lab.
Professor Mauricio Barbi in the quarry preparing a specimen to be moved to the lab. Photo courtesy of Professor Mauricio Barbi

Mauricio Barbi has always dreamed big, but lately his dreams have been coming true through his research at the University of Regina.

As a child, Barbi, a particle physicist and associate professor at the University, dreamed of becoming a paleontologist, physicist or astronaut. Initially, he opted to be an astronaut, joining the navy to train as a pilot, but military life did not agree with him. Instead, Barbi became a scientist, training in high-energy physics. While he loves physics, Barbi always regretted that he had not also followed the paleontology path… until now.

Over the past two years, Barbi has undertaken a cross-disciplinary “paleo project,” applying his expertise in particle physics to the study of dinosaurs. Working together with a team of geologists, paleontologists and technicians from the University of Regina as well as other universities and research centres, Barbi has conducted field research that has yielded some exciting results.

Of particular interest to Barbi is a Hadrosaur with a well-preserved skin sample, unearthed with his help near Grand Prairie, Alberta. This is only the fourth time in history (and first in Canada) that a fossil with skin in such a state of preservation has been found. The specimen was unearthed by one of Barbi’s associates, Phil Bell, in June of 2012. Applying his training as a physicist, Barbi took the sample to the University of Saskatchewan’s synchrotron, the Canadian Light Source (CLS), to examine the skin at the atomic level. What he discovered was that he could detect the chemistry of the sample and map it at a microscopic scale. Using this method, he is attempting to identify colour pigments known as melanosomes and determine how Hadrosaurs were coloured.

Barbi has also taken bone samples to the CLS facility to examine their chemical compositions. Understanding the types of minerals and elements present in the dinosaur bones, Barbi explains, can help us to understand the type of environment in which the creatures lived. Fundamentally, Barbi wants to understand how dinosaurs interacted with their environment and to trace their evolution.

All of this research makes for a fascinating mix of geology, paleontology, chemistry and physics. “We are crossing the barriers between different disciplines,” says Barbi. “If you think about it, the separation between the sciences is an illusion. At some point, all of those fields have to work together.” Barbi’s collaboration is important because the knowledge it generates can help scientists in many more fields of study.

Barbi is now two years into his paleo project, and his excitement about working with dinosaurs and applying particle physics to the field of paleontology is palpable. “Not long into my research,” Barbi exclaims, “I realized, this is a dream-come-true. I’m doing paleontology!” When asked what motivates him, Barbi explains, “As humans, we are curious. We want to understand ourselves and what surrounds us. To do that, it doesn’t make sense to just sit in a chair and stare at the sky. We have to get to work and understand our past, our evolution. This work is contributing to understanding our past, and our future. We have to conduct research if we want to understand ourselves, our place in this universe, and what is so special about this planet.”