While stepping back, evolutionary geologist Sankar Chatterjee plans to continue pursuing answers to one of the universe’s biggest questions.
Sankar Chatterjee doesn't get around as easily as he once did.
This man who used to climb mountains in Antarctica and walked mile after mile in the badlands of West Texas, India and China now finds it a challenge to climb the stairs in his home. But he still greets visitors with the same bright eyes and enthusiastic smile, his mind as sharp as ever.
Actually, his mental capacities may be improving as his physical health deteriorates – just ask him.
Chatterjee discovered a dozen different distinct types of dinosaurs and their close relatives over the course of his career. But now, after more than 40 years at Texas Tech University, Chatterjee is retiring and stepping back from his roles as a Horn Professor in the Department of Geosciences, and as Curator of Paleontology and Director of the Antarctic Research Center in the Museum of Texas Tech.
Acknowledging that his time is waning, he hopes to devote the rest of his life to pursuing his most recent passion: how life began.
Dr. Chatterjee, I know you were born in India. What originally brought you to the U.S. and how did you wind up at Texas Tech?
It's a long story. I was in Calcutta, working at the Geology Museum of the prestigious Indian Statistical Institute. I was doing field explorations, and I discovered one of the rarest, 230 million-year-old fossils: two complete alligator-like animals called phytosaurs. Both were complete as if they were swimming. And inside, there were two new animals in their stomachs, so apparently, they ate and died, perhaps, by a flash flood. So, I wrote a long manuscript about the animals and sent it to a famous professor at the University of California Berkeley for review.
His name was Joseph Gregory, and he worked in this area all of his life. He liked it so much, he wrote to me, “Sankar, you have to come to this country, and I can make an arrangement for you so you can teach and do your research.” So, I ended up coming to UC Berkeley as a visiting professor. It was 1976. And I thought, you know, I'll come and go back, because my wife and our little boy were still in India. But Berkeley was such a nice place – so stimulating, and I liked it so much. I already had a green card, but it was just a one-year appointment. I finished my paper, published it, and then I got an invitation from the Smithsonian Institution, so I went there.
There, I met another mentor, Dr. Nick Hotton. I was mesmerized to see the dinosaur hall at the National Museum of Natural History, where I worked. I was also teaching at George Washington University, where I encountered one of many fascinating scientists. His name was Mort Turner, and he was a program director at the National Science Foundation in Antarctic research. And one day, I stopped him and said, “Mort, is there any way I could go to Antarctica?” He said, “Oh, you are working at the Smithsonian? We cannot fund another federal institution. You have to go to a university.” Then I said, “OK, let me think about it.” And the next day, he said, “Oh, there may be a chance. If you're really dying to go to Antarctica, I can make a recommendation.” I said, “Where?” and he said, “Lubbock, Texas.”
At the time, there was a very famous geologist, one of the finest at the Texas Tech Museum, Alton Wade, and he had died. Mort said, “They are going to replace his position, and if you're interested, I can make the introduction.” I'd been funding Dr. Wade for a long time. I said, “Yeah, I can go anywhere just to go to Antarctica.”
The reason I was dying to go to Antarctica was that 300 million years ago, India and Antarctica were joined together. Antarctica was our geological neighbor. And I knew the geology of India, so I thought it would be interesting to know the geology of a neighboring country.
So, this is why I came to Lubbock: to go to Antarctica.
Tell me about your work with the Museum of Texas Tech and the Antarctic Research Center.
I got the job, came here, and my wife, Sibani, and son joined me after a month. I didn't realize Texas Tech had such a large paleontological collection at the museum. It was in a very bad state and neglected for 10 years after the last curator left. The director of our museum was going to wind up the whole collection. I told the director, “It's such a good collection, and you're thinking of sending it away? I could curate it.” The Vice President for Research was Knox Jones, a friend of Mort Turner, so Mort came to Lubbock, and we had dinner with Knox. Knox said, “If you want to curate the collection, it's yours.” It was an orphaned collection, so I became the curator of paleontology and the director of the Antarctic Research Center.
Now, there was one string attached.
Dr. Wade had worked on the geology of Antarctica for more than five decades and published excellent geological maps of Antarctica with his students. He published very little on his works but left valuable clues in his field notebooks, rock collection, photographs and correspondences. I had to summarize his works and submit a report to the National Science Foundation (NSF) before I could start my own expedition.
As I began to pour through his notebooks and correspondences, I realized that Dr. Wade was a remarkable scientist. He was the very first geologist who went to Antarctica with Admiral Byrd in the 1920s. Over all these years, he collected many rock specimens and left valuable correspondence, but they were all scattered. So, the first thing I did was, for posterity, catalog all the letters, correspondence and photographs. He was an intellectual giant, even working on the geology of the Martian surfaces, but on the other hand, he was very disorganized; he didn't put any identifying information on the rocks he collected. I mean, it was such a daunting task. So, I said, “OK, my first task will be to catalog all the rocks collected by Wade.”
I got two students who helped me. Slowly, I cataloged all the Antarctic rock specimens and Wade's notebook, photographs, maps and medals and arranged a small exhibit at the museum on the life and works of Dr. Wade. So, once I finished Dr. Wade's unfinished work, and I wrote his summary of what he did all those years, Mort Turner with the NSF was very happy and said, “Now you can go to Antarctica on your own.” We wrote a proposal to NSF and got funded. So, I took two of my students, as well as Nick Hotton from the Smithsonian. I made four expeditions to Antarctica and collected one of the best fossil assemblages from Antarctica, which is now stored in the Texas Tech Museum.
Now, while I was looking at the Paleontology collection, I found that right here around Lubbock is a huge Triassic deposit – that is the age of the beginning of dinosaurs. So, I talked to some of my colleagues in geology and said, “Can I go and do some fieldwork?” They said, “No, these are on private property, and the ranchers don't like people on their property.” I said, “Let me try.” So, my wife and I went to see a rancher at Post to explore the possibility. Mr. and Mrs. Kirkpatrick were waiting for us at the gate of this huge ranch. I talked and talked, and finally, they said, “Why do you want to work on our land?” I told them they had a buried treasure and what it was worth to science.
Then Mr. Kirkpatrick said, “OK, take the key; you can go any place.” But there were a few conditions. “You don't smoke, so that's good, and you don't have long hair, and that's even better. And always, when you come out from the ranch, remember to lock the door.”
Mrs. Kirkpatrick took me to the police and the judge in Post. She said, “These guys are a little crazy, working in the summertime. If they break any laws, don't put them in jail; they're good people.” And the judge said, “No, don't worry; you're from Texas Tech,” and the police said, “No, don't worry, we know you.” She also introduced us to other ranchers for access to their property. These ranchers helped our research and funded our work generously.
So, I applied to National Geographic for a grant and got it. The first year, we did the fieldwork in Post and discovered a treasure trove of fossils, many new to science. I took many students in the field on many ranches in the Garza and Crosby counties for the past 30 years, funded continuously by the National Geographic Society.
We have probably one of the finest Antarctic collections in the nation – vertebrates and plants from Antarctica – and probably the best Triassic collection, which came from here. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to go to the new frontier.
What are some of the moments that really stand out, looking back?
Our work got lots of publicity; we were in the New York Times, TIME magazine, Wall Street Journal, Economist, China Daily, USA Today, Discovery magazine, Life and National Geographic, and featured in BBC, CNN, CBS, ABC and NPR news. Our research on Protoavis was featured in the NOVA series “The Case of the Flying Dinosaurs,” Postosuchus in the BBC series “Walking with Dinosaurs,” and the sailing Tapejara in David Attenborough's award-winning Imax film. And then, I got invitations from Brazil, Argentina and China to do fieldwork. I have many professional friends not only in the U.S. but in China, India, Brazil and Argentina. I enjoyed visiting and collaborating with them and learning about their food, music and culture. It's a small world, after all.
I'm so lucky that even the dean, vice president, president and chancellor were interested, so it was not just the museum; the hierarchy started supplementing our work. This is how I designed and directed the Dinosaur Hall exhibit for the Lubbock community.
You know, there's always danger in Antarctica. One time our ship, Polar Sea, was sinking. Two of my students, Bryan Small and Mike Nickell, were with me. We had a collision with an iceberg, and the water was coming in; everything was flooded on the lower deck. It was a Coast Guard icebreaker, you know, very strongly built with a one-inch-thick steel plate on the side. But an iceberg is unpredictable – it split the ship like a can opener for 100 feet, and the water was coming in. So, the captain said, “We have two choices: we can die, or we can go to one of the islands, if time permits.” And the nearest island was about 100 miles. He also called Washington, and from Washington, someone called my wife. The gentleman said, “How are you doing, Mrs. Chatterjee? I want to ask you one question.” She said, “What?” “Does your husband have good life insurance?” because she was managing two boys; it was very difficult. She said, “What do you mean? No, nothing.” He said, “There is a chance the whole ship may sink. Don't worry. We are sending our rescue mission. Just checking.” Eventually, we were able to go to an island, a Chilean base camp, and we were rescued by an LC-130 plane.
So anyway, all kinds of things happened in Antarctica and in China, but I was able to meet so many people. You know, I have friends all over the world. And then, I also started working back in India with my colleagues there. So, in all these places, we did lots of expeditions. And the university has been so supportive all these years.
That must have been so scary for your wife! How did your family deal with the realities of your job?
When I went to China, Sibani accompanied me, and that was difficult because, by that time, we had two boys. And so, we went to India and deposited my two boys with grandma, and then went to China.
You know, my wife sacrificed her whole life to support me and raise two children. She was a climatologist, and she started her Ph.D. here in our atmospheric science department; then, she realized it would be difficult to raise the boys and continue. She was also an accomplished singer. So basically, she gave up her career for me and the children.
I used to work every day in my early years, including Saturday and Sunday, at the museum. But on Sunday, there was a stipulation from my wife. She said, “I want you to stay at home. But if you go, you must take your boys.” I said OK, and so the museum became their learning center. Both knew how to prepare fossils and do science projects. This is where my younger son discovered Shuvosaurus in the museum, and the older one, Soumyasaurus, in the field. At Texas Tech, my two boys were exposed to science, technology and music.
So, I'm grateful. Looking back 43 years, I can't believe I spent more than half of my life here. And I intended to do it temporarily, you know, just to get to go to other places, but we have stayed here, and it has been so good. People here have big hearts like the big sky of Texas.
With you retiring as director and curator, what happens to the Antarctic Research Center now?
For the last 10 years, Antarctic research in the U.S. has died down. There is not much work funded by NSF and no active fieldwork. But our collection is available for researchers. We have Morturneria, a unique sea monster or plesiosaur (named after Mort Turner), Polarornis, the first modern singing bird during the last days of dinosaurs, a wonderful fish collection and a rich collection of Glossopteris leaves, the unique paleontological link between Antarctica and India, about 300 million years ago.
Researchers from all over the world come to the museum to study the Triassic fossil collection, one of the best in the nation, which we amassed from West Texas. The museum will replace the curator of paleontology, who can continue the work we started.
I built an excellent network with the Kirkpatrick family and other ranchers, and they gave us their permission and critical access. So, whoever comes in will have all that access. And mind you, I think we have so many things yet to be discovered, so I feel hopeful that whoever comes will be able to collect many new species. And it will be an immense treasure to the museum.
The collections are beautifully cataloged now. And so, in the future, if anybody wants to come, they can study the material. But the Triassic research could still be very active – first, because this is so close by and, second, we made such good rapport with the ranchers. I think they will welcome whoever comes.
How did you first get interested in studying the origin of life?
Traditionally, there are three groups of scientists dominating the search for the origin of life: the organic chemists, the inorganic chemists and the molecular biologists, all of whom heavily rely on laboratory experiments. However, life is a planetary phenomenon. Without the knowledge of early Earth and its birth from a supernova explosion, our search for the origin of life remains incomplete. To remedy this deficiency, a new interdisciplinary field of astrobiology has emerged recently that asks profound scientific questions in the cosmic context. NASA's Astrobiology Institute at Ames Research Center, in Mountain View, Calif., attracted my attention to studying the origin of life. I began collaborating with Dr. David Deamer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was an active member of the Astrobiology Institute and a leading authority on the origin of life study. Dr. Deamer became my mentor in this new field and encouraged me to study it from the geologic and evolutionary point of view about 20 years ago.
That's one of the advantages I have over a chemist. Chemists can do all the intricate chemical experiments. But they're probably not so familiar with the geology of early Earth and the evolution of life, which becomes very clear to me. Because of our training, we can see the big picture, so I thought this project was perfect. We'll probably never know the answer, but if we can reconstruct the likely processes, we can say how life might have begun 4 billion years ago.
I began publishing a series of papers on the origin of life in reputed journals. My book, “From Stardust to First Cells: The Origin and Early Evolution of Life” (Springer), will come out by the end of this year. I am hopeful it will be well received.
The origin of life is now my hobby, an ideal retirement project. You wrote a beautiful piece about that work, but we have developed quite a bit since then. My colleague in the business college is an information specialist; he does not know biology, so it's a beautiful combination. He knows all this intricacy of information, whereas I know molecular biology, so it's a gorgeous visual collaboration and some great simulations.
To you, what was the most earth-shattering discovery you made?
It's difficult to say because there were several.
Postosuchus has a specific star power because it's dinosaur-like – it shows dinosaur features before the dinosaurs came. So, Postosuchus is very popular, and everybody knows it. You can visit museums in Los Angeles, Houston and the Petrified Forest and find a cast skeleton of Postosuchus in their exhibits, and it's becoming a movie star through BBC.
Then Shuvosaurus is equally fascinating. It was a crocodile relative but looked like an ostrich dinosaur superficially and was fully terrestrial. Shuvosaurus was a dinosaur-mimic crocodile – an example of convergent evolution.
Of course, my discovery that's still controversial is Protoavis. We only found the critical part in the form of isolated bones and needed an articulated skeleton to settle this controversy. But the rancher stopped access to his property after much publicity. Recently, his son allowed us to work on their lands. So, whoever's coming in my position, I'm sure he or she will be able to go there. I'm pretty sure the whole skeleton of Protoavis is waiting to be discovered, but I think Protoavis is probably the most crucial discovery right here.
However, nothing is lost entirely. Through Protoavis, I began working with the flight dynamics of early birds. At that time, there was a renaissance in the origin of birds. Birds were considered flying dinosaurs. Thousands and thousands of intact feathered dinosaurs and early birds were found in the ash beds of Liaoning Province of China, northeast of Beijing. This was probably the paleontological discovery of the century. UNESCO designated the site as a World Heritage Center. I was invited to visit the site and work on the flight capability of these feathered dinosaurs and early birds. Luckily, a famous Canadian aeronautical engineer Jack Templin showed interest in working with me at that time. Jack and I published a series of papers and monographs on the flight dynamics of feathered dinosaurs and early birds from China: how dinosaurs began to fly to become birds. I wrote a book, “The Rise of Birds,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, including all the Chinese birds. The book has been translated into many languages, including a Chinese version.
And the collaboration with Jack Templin brought me an opportunity from another corner of the world. My Brazilian colleagues discovered a treasure trove of intact pterodactyl skeletons, complete and three-dimensional, including the skin impression. Pterodactyls were the dragons of the air and flew over the heads of the dinosaurs. This discovery became a paleontological sensation. Museum collectors from around the world rushed to the Brazilian site, bribed the local villagers and bought these extraordinary fossils. Strangely enough, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his famous, 1910 science fiction classic, “The Lost World,” which was close to the Brazilian fossil site. Science fiction became science fact. Because of their flight power, the pterodactyl skeletons were hollow and paper thin, always preserved in the crushed condition in two-dimension. It was difficult to study their flight dynamics. Alexander Kellner, the curator of paleontology at Brazil's National Museum, where the recently discovered skeletons of pterodactyls were housed, asked me if, with the discovery of the amazing three-dimensional fossils from Brazil, I would be interested in studying their flight dynamics.
It was another lifetime opportunity. I went to Rio de Janeiro and studied the anatomy of the pterodactyl skeletons. I asked Kellner whether he could make complete cast skeletons of these pterodactyls so that we could purchase these skeletons for our aerodynamic study and then exhibit them at our dinosaur hall. Kellner supplied us with half a dozen high-fidelity fiber casts of skeletons of pterodactyls for our aerodynamic study. I began to work with Jack Templin, which resulted in a book, “Posture, Locomotion, and Paleoecology of Pterosaurs,” published by the Geological Society of America. Sadly, in 2018, a devastating fire ripped through much of Rio de Janeiro's National Museum and claimed fossils, cultural artifacts and irreplaceable collections amassed over 200 years. All the beautiful pterodactyl skeletons turned into ashes. Our pterodactyl exhibit at the Dinosaur Hall gives a partial glimpse of the exquisite pterodactyl collection from Brazil that was lost forever.
My scientific journey took me in different directions. It was an exciting time in geology and paleontology. In 1980, the Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez and his son Walter, a geologist at UC Berkeley, published their seminal paper that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The theory holds that a carbon-rich asteroid, about 6 miles across, traveling faster than a bullet, slammed into Earth and delivered a destructive blast thousands of times more powerful than the combined yield of all global nuclear weapons. The telltale evidence comes from a distinctive iridium layer in the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary worldwide that marks the end of the dinosaur era. Iridium is virtually absent from the Earth's crust, but high concentrations are common in extraterrestrial objects such as carbon-rich asteroids. The impact theory was boldened with the discovery of the Chicxulub Crater at Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, about 110 miles across that formed 65 million years ago as the Alvarez group predicted.
However, most paleontologists at that time resisted the impact theory and argued that massive volcanic eruptions in India, called the Deccan Traps, were behind the demise of the dinosaurs.
With an open mind, I began to revisit India and started fieldwork with my Indian colleagues at the Indian Statistical Institute to test the impact versus the volcanic theory on the extinction of dinosaurs. We discovered that between the layer of Deccan volcanic lava, sediments were rich in the bones and eggs of the last dinosaurs. We discovered the largest nesting sites of dinosaurs in these interlayered beds stretching 600 miles along the Late Cretaceous beds. Surprisingly, none of the eggs contain any embryo. Deccan volcanisms led to an increasingly toxic environment by releasing mercury into the atmosphere, water and soil. Scientists reported a high concentration of mercury anomaly in the sediments globally at the K-Pg boundary, which is linked to the major Deccan eruption episode. Did Deccan volcanisms trigger the hatchling failure of dinosaurs in India by mercury-induced poisoning? We don't know. Currently, I am working with University of California-Los Angeles scientists to detect the mercury level in an Indian dinosaur eggshell.
However, like many sites in North America, we detected the iridium layer at many K-Pg boundaries in India. Finally, we could locate the second impact site on the western coast of India. We named this impact site the Shiva crater after Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. The British journal Economist wrote a beautiful article based on our monograph on the Shiva crater, titled, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
From Antarctica, we discovered a bird called Polarornis. Most birdlike dinosaurs were mute, but we found the soundbox there. Also, in Antarctica, we found a fascinating plesiosaur, which we named after Mort Turner, Morturneria. Both got lots of publicity, so that was equally good.
But my main goal for the Antarctic expedition was establishing the timeline for joining and separating India from Antarctica for the past 300 million years. I started working with Chris Scotese on this problem. India and Antarctica were united for a long geologic time. About 120 million years ago, India began to separate from Antarctica and began its long northward journey. About 60 million years ago, India began colliding with Asia after 5,000 miles of northward journey and created the Himalayan Mountain Range. This work was published as a book, “The Restless Indian Plate and its Voyage from Gondwana to Asia,” by the Geological Society of America. My goal of coming to Lubbock was finally achieved.
Life is a learning process. Looking back, I have learned a lot from my collaborators.
To you, what was the biggest challenge in your career?
The recent one: the origin of life. It's so fascinating, and just one thought after another keeps coming. I think my book will come out by the end of this year. I tried to cover everything, especially the fundamental evolutionary part as well as the information part. And what we did was interesting.
People knew about digital information, but there are other kinds of information they didn't know, like analog or hybrid. Hybrid is entirely new information we discovered in life. And with these things, we can make a fantastic picture.
I think my book will be able to give you a very comprehensive view of multiple disciplines – geology, biology, and information systems. And it's all thought experiments (German: Gedankenexperiment) that Einstein pioneered.
What are you most proud of?
That I still can think at my age. I traveled all over the world. I climbed mountains. Now I cannot. Even walking on the stairs becomes difficult. But, side by side, as I'm losing that part, I think I'm gaining some cognitive mental power. I can feel very intensely. So, if I can work for at least five years, I think I will be able to contribute something good to the origin of life.
So, do you plan to continue working on that?
Sure. Please think of how vital it is and how few people are doing it! These are our biggest two questions in life: How did life evolve, and is there any life elsewhere? These are the two perennial questions for people from all cultures, everywhere. Think about the Bible, the Quran. It starts with the genesis because this is really the most intriguing part.
We already know that life in drops of water is quite different. But what it is, we still do not know. A life definition is complicated; NASA created one, but they said it doesn't cover everything. They couldn't come up with a simple explanation of life. Because if they find life on Mars, which I'm pretty sure there is life there, it's heat-loving bacteria.
Compare our planet with Mars. Four millennia ago, they were identical. Think about this; it's so fascinating. And then suddenly, Mars lost its atmosphere. It couldn't hold its water into liquid form, so the water froze, and it became just desolate, like Antarctica. But the authentic history you can see. I think this is one of my best original contributions so far: that impact craters may be the cradle where life started.
How do you feel about retiring?
I think I feel very good. You know, my project now is just to think. I don't have to go anywhere, I can look at the sky, look at the trees, and I can ponder how life started here and elsewhere in the Universe.
And then I'm going to travel, and my grandkids will visit. They're bundles of joy. My boys wanted us to move to West Coast. One lives in Seattle, he's a neuroscientist, and the other lives in Menlo Park and works at Google. They wanted us to move, but we like Lubbock.
And I'm sure I'll have an office at the museum to be there when I want to.
Let's get philosophical for a second. You have spent roughly the last 20 years studying how life began. But to you, why did life begin? And now that we're here do we have a purpose?
It's called singularity – just one event.
Darwin made a wonderful prediction. He wrote a letter to his friend Hooker, saying life might have started with all these organic chemicals in “warm little ponds,” and then energy such as lightning sparks life. I mean, he touched the essence of the origin of life. Think of it as a chatty letter to a friend, but he touched on the basic ingredients that you need: hot temperature, energy and organic chemicals. I mean, he didn't say that it started with rocks or something – and he didn't say that it started with life; that was very popular at the time. He said, no, it's just the chemicals, and then, there's electricity – there's lightning and other energy sources – and eventually life very first developed through prebiotic synthesis. And then he said, life is not forming today simply because there's so much life here. If any chemicals, the building blocks of life, are forming, they're being gobbled up. And that is true. There's just one origin of life, which happened 4 million years back. I think Darwin was right.
As for a purpose, think of it like this. In the big scheme of things, each of our lives is just a little journey, like visiting a country. It's a very short trip.
Look around. Look at the starlit night. Once you realize you're a part of this big creation among billions of stars and galaxies, a little speck in this cosmic drama, that's the purpose. You feel lucky to be a digital link in the river of life. Like birth, death is inevitable. That feeling you're part of the creation? That's a wonderful thing. And if you can help anything around you while you're here – humans, animals, plants, the environment – during your short stay, that's the purpose.
Humans have wonderful capacities. You know, if we create some problems first, we'll be able to solve them. And here is a good example. Before the '50s or '60s, all the refrigerants, coolants, hairspray and McDonald's boxes were made of CFC, chlorofluorocarbon. But if you use it, it goes up to the atmosphere, and this is what happens: the ozone layer breaks down, it turns into oxygen. This big ozone gap was created. Every southern winter, there was a big hole over Antarctica and, in every northern winter, over the Arctic, which heals up during the warmer summer months. The ozone layer makes land life possible by shielding the earth from harmful UV rays from the sun. How big was the ozone hole? The size of Texas. Fortunately, no people live on these two extreme poles. But when scientists and people learned this, they said OK, there'll be a moratorium; we will not use CFC anymore. We found a replacement chemical and stopped using CFC. And suddenly, the hole is shrinking.
So, if we try, we can solve our problems. Our greatest hope is for the new young generation who cares for the environment. The mess we have created by damaging our climate and polluting the environment since the Industrial Revolution will be restored by them, I believe, so that Homo sapiens can survive on this beautiful planet.