“Go ahead and pick one up if you like.” It was 1996. In front of me was a box of fossils, many millions of years old. I was visiting the laboratory of Paul Sereno, a University of Chicago paleontologist, while reporting a feature article. Reaching in, I lifted a sepia-tinted bone, about six inches long and blade-shaped. It was oddly heavy in my hand from the mineralization that had occurred over millennia. I ran my thumb along one side. Oops—still quite sharp! Instantly my mind conjured a mouthful of these remorseless fangs in a human-sized skull owned by a Tyrannosaurus rex. A chill ran up my spine.
How did T. rex become the towering predator of the Cretaceous? As paleontologist Stephen Brusatte writes in this issue's cover story, “Rise of the Tyrannosaurs,” in the past 15 years nearly 20 new finds have been remaking our understanding of this theropod (“beast-footed”) dinosaur. “The king of the dinosaurs,” Brusatte asserts, “far from belonging to a dynasty of giant predators, actually had rather humble roots and was merely the last survivor of a startling variety of tyrannosaurs that lived across the globe right up until the asteroid impact 66 million years ago that brought the dinosaur era to a close and ushered in the Age of Mammals.”
Considering the rise and fall of the “tyrant lizard,” I suppose I will not be the only one to recall Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's famous sonnet “Ozymandias,” which is about an ancient king whose once great works have all been erased over the passage of a vast span of time. In light of the monumental achievements and current challenges of our own species, it does make me thoughtful.
Entries due soon
The Google Science Fair is open until May 19 for entries by individuals or teams of up to three students ages 13 through 18. As I have done every year since the global competition began in 2011, I am honored to serve as chief judge. Scientific American is a founding partner and this year is funding two prizes: the $25,000 Innovator Award for projects in biology, chemistry, physics, or the behavioral or social sciences and the $10,000 Community Impact Award to recognize research that makes a practical difference by addressing an environmental, health or resources challenge; winners also get a year's worth of mentoring to further their endeavors. As always, I am looking forward to seeing the inspiring work of our world's fine young minds.