There are real stories that give for a Sunday afternoon movie with which to spend an endearing time. Children on bicycles, a soundtrack that inspires you to dream and the main character’s determination to make the grown-ups take seriously what until now seems insignificant. Something like this happened with Paul Olsen in a town near New York during the sixties.
A “bit” of context
To understand the context we have to go just a little further back in time. 200 million years ago , massive forces in the form of gravity, heat, and pressure caused the continents to start drifting apart. Until then, the entire land mass had been united in one block, but the time came when Pangea split in two and, when a continent cracks, what comes to the surface is lava, heat and smoke with toxic gases. But not a little, no. We are on a geological scale and we know that it is sometimes difficult to imagine things in such apocalyptic terms. We are talking about a thousand meters of height of lava. Eight million square kilometers were covered by burning earth and rock.
The global warming caused by this geological event was of drastic dimensions. One of the five mass extinctions that have occurred in the history of history. Thirty percent of the species disappeared, but, incredible as it may seem, the situation favored one group of animals: the dinosaurs.
Of course, a phenomenon of these characteristics leaves visible traces today. When Pangea split in two, North America and Europe were separated, as were South America and Africa. It was then that the water filled the hole that remained, until forming the Atlantic Ocean. On the east coast of the United States we have vestiges of this rupture. Along the Hudson River in New York, you can see a line of cliffs made of basalt, an igneous rock very common on the Earth’s surface. This terrain was formed by magma that failed to rise to the surface when the supercontinent Pangaea broke apart. A few kilometers further west it did manage to break through the earth’s crust and the lava formed the so-called Watchung Mountains in northern New Jersey . In the middle of those mountains is Livingston , a commuter town with thirty thousand inhabitants.
Dinosaurs next to the house
One morning in 1968, fourteen-year-old Paul Olsen was shocked to read a news item in the newspaper: dinosaur tracks had been found very close to his home . I think that all boys and girls with a minimum of curiosity have gone through a stage obsessed with dinosaurs, especially those of us who are part of the “Jurassic Park” generation. Paul Olsen did not need to have seen the Steven Spielberg film to be totally attracted by those giant and ferocious animals of the past that, now, he knew that they had lived in the same city.
That same afternoon after reading the news, Paul met up with his friend Tony Lessa and they rode their bikes to the abandoned quarry where the dinosaur footprints had been found . They weren’t the only ones interested, of course. Olsen and his friend met other curious and amateur fossil hunters there who taught the children the basics of fossils and how to locate more tracks.
The tireless friends came to the quarry with their bikes whenever they could. At night, lit by flashlights or a small bonfire, in the cold winter, the free time allowed by classes was used by extracting slabs and rocks in search of fossils. They were exploring the area for more than a year , because the intensity that a child puts into something they are passionate about has no comparison with the sporadic fossil hunters who left the quarry as soon as the excitement of discovery dissipated.
Dear Mr. President of the United States of America…
The boys found hundreds of footprints of dinosaurs and other animals. Their success was such that they soon began to have problems. In addition to the fact that the quarry began to be used illegally as a dump, while they were in high school, fossil hunters came to steal the footprints that the boys were in the process of extracting. What could they do? Well, again the boundless determination of a young man (almost insolence): Paul Olsen did not complain to his neighbors, no, he sent letters directly to the president of the United States , then Richard Nixon . He even sent footprint casts to the White House so that they understood the need to protect the site.
His campaign got some media buzz and was even featured in an article in Life magazine. His insistence paid off again: in 1970, the quarry owners donated the land to the county, and the place where Paul Olsen had spent so many hours was turned into a dinosaur park, the Rikel Hill Fossil Site . A year later, the site was named a National Natural Landmark and little Olsen received a presidential award.
Paul Olsen studied geology and paleontology, defended his doctoral thesis at Yale and currently works as a professor at Columbia University, on the other side of the Hudson River, very close to “his” site. In 2008 he was made a member of the National Academy of Sciences , one of the highest honors for a scientist in the United States.
As for not having esteem for disclosure, journalism and the ability to dream big from our childhood, which we should never lose.
Kleiman, M. Amateur Teenage “Dinosaur Hunter’s” Find Ends up in the National Archives. The National Archives: archive.gov
Olsen, P et all. 1977. Triassic-Jurassic Tetrapod Extinctions: Are They Real? Science 197, 4307, 983-986. DOI: 10.1126/science.197.4307.983.