Greatest in the small things

Planktonic foramenifera. © F.S. Caballero

Scientists experience awe in very different ways, depending on the systems they study. In the second part of my interview with Spanish Palaeontologist Fernando Caballero Santamaria, he describes how he processes his experience of awe in his own work. (Part 1 here)

When you work with stones, as I do, sometimes it’s difficult to feel the sense of awe that more biological scientists often talk about. But when I’ve finished cleaning up my specimens and look at them under the microscope – that’s when I see real beauty. One of the greatest experiences of my career was when I was working with an electron microscope. The magnification was so high that I could see fossilised nano-plankton sitting in the pore of another plankton that I was studying. They’re so small, and so beautiful!

Outside of the lab, I often experience awe when I look at geological landscapes. For example, there’s a spectacular glacial valley in the Ordesa National Park in Northern Spain. Standing at the top of the valley, I have fossils under my feet, and in the distance I can see the limit of the Palaeocene period, the Eocene period, and so on. In my mind’s eye I am able to follow a three-dimensional reconstruction of these rock layers all the way to France in one direction, and towards what used to be the sea bed in the Basque country (where I live) in the other. It’s breathtaking. I’ve had similar experiences in Yellowstone National Park, and in Shark Bay in Australia where I studied stromatolites. To be there, just walking among the fossils…those are great experiences. Continue reading


Foraminifera “Star sand” Hatoma Island – Japan, Psammophile. (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

In the last of my interviews with Spanish scientists, Fernando Caballero Santamaria describes his work in palaeontology at the University of the Basque Country, and his experiences in discussing science-faith questions with his colleagues. 

I work with microfossils – remnants of a type of marine plankton called foraminifera. In some kinds of rock you can find thousands of these tiny fossils in every cubic centimetre, and they’re a great way to study geological change.

As a PhD student I looked at the great extinction at the end of the cretaceous and beginning of the tertiary period (the K-T boundary) that correlates with volcanic and meteorite activity. During that particular extinction most plankton disappeared, and then completely new species began to appear – very small ones at first – that re-colonised all the different ecological niches. My research group has now helped to establish three other geological boundaries (Global Stratotypes and Section Points) as a reference for researchers around the world. Just two weeks ago we had an event where we put a ‘golden spike’ in an important rock stratotype in the Basque country. Continue reading