What is your favorite part about being a scientist? How did you become interested in science?
I’m an amateur paleontologist. That makes me a time traveler. I like traveling through time.
I see sequences of stratigraphic layers that represent ancient sea floors all in about the same place, but in different instances of time. Sometimes I’ll pull over at a road cut in Northern Kentucky and see the remains of animals and plants that lived 450 million years ago. And yet, I can easily picture myself in the late Ordovician Period. These animals were alive and swimming in a warm shallow sea.
As I climb the road cut, ascending through the rock layers, I am going forward in Ordovician time at a rate of thousands of years per second. I stop on a ledge. Time freezes. I see meter-length ripple marks in the bedrock that extend across the ledge as if I’m standing on a sea floor with wave action winnowing the silty bottom. I’m astonished with the variety of fossilized animals still resting in exactly the same spot where they once lived.
The event of these creatures’ death is also recorded beneath my feet. I’m compelled to learn more. How did they die? Was it something they ate? I feel I can answer those questions using scientific methods.
We have such power now as amateurs in many areas of science. Human beings are naturally curious. Even as a young child I conducted experiments and recorded my results. My neighbor told me that when I was young, she saw me conduct an experiment to verity the speed of sound. I stood at one end of our cul-de-sac, shouted, and ran super-fast (a technical term), stopped abruptly with unprecedented precision and listened for my shout. You can guess that I didn’t succeed in verifying the speed of sound that day, but it’s the spirit of trying that counts. I was inquisitive at an early age. I knew that science facts are verifiable and ready to be revised and improved by all of us. We are all amateur scientists!
What do you do?
Professionally, I program large-scale computer systems. But at home I collect fossils as a hobby. This hobby has become my way to contribute to the field of Paleontology and to education.
I started out in the late 1980’s just collecting fossils for recreation in my local streams and fields. I love getting out there and listening to the birds and finding evidence of our ancient past. It’s a great pastime I highly recommend.
It wasn’t long before I wanted my efforts to be worth more than just recreation. So I joined the Dry Dredgers fossil club based at the University of Cincinnati. I met knowledgeable educators and other amateur and professional paleontologists who could use my fossils for teaching and research. They taught me a great deal, which made my daily fossil collecting much more enjoyable.
I was also able to give my extra fossils to the Dry Dredgers “Cincinnati Fossils” kits and benefit both the club and education. They sell bags of 12 Ordovician fossils “From the Hills of Cincinnati” at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science gift shop. The money goes into the club’s general fund which feeds paleontological research grants and projects while the kits help schools and fellow fossil enthusiasts.
I quickly became chair of the fossil kit committee. Now 27 years later, Kimberly Cox and I sell the Dry Dredgers fossil kits in park and museum gift shops around the area and donate some kits and loose fossils to teachers, schools and outreach facilitators. Fossils used in our fossil kits are currently screened for scientific importance so that each fossil is put to the best use. Some may be deposited into a museum collection. I want collectors who give Cincinnati fossils to the Dry Dredgers to know their donation will benefit educational outreach and/or the science of paleontology.
Another big part of my educational outreach efforts is the Dry Dredgers website, which I designed and have updated since 1998. We are fortunate to have a number of Dry Dredgers who have contributed all types of information about our late Ordovician fossils for the website. You will see me at all local Dry Dredgers field trips taking photographs of the fossils people find and helping identify the specimens. See my field trip reports here.
How does your research and outreach contribute to the understanding of paleontology?
I’ve always hoped that in this short life I could make a dent in the advancement of mankind. We pop into this world, have just enough time to look around and figure a few things out, pass on what we’ve learned and then pop out of existence.
For the last 20+ years, I have been gathering information and fossils from dozens of fossil sites in the Cincinnati area in the hope that it will advance our body of knowledge on Earth’s ancient past. In addition to educating the public with our Dry Dredgers website and building classroom fossil kits, my collection of Ordovician sediment and microfossils are helping professional paleontologists advance our knowledge of the evolution of nacre (mother-of-pearl) in mollusks and our understanding of the deposition of phosphate, an essential mineral for our existence.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Ask questions. Our society often discourages “questioning” accepted wisdom. Don’t let that stop you. Questions are how new knowledge is obtained. Be inquisitive and find out more than what others know. Discover things for yourself. Be an amateur scientist!
You can learn more about Bill Heimbrock’s amateur paleontology adventures on myfossil.org!