Lion's Roar

THE DHARMA OF DINOSAURS (and Other Cool Stuff)

Jingmai O’Connor


“TO ME, HUMAN TIME is insignificant,” says Jingmai O’Connor, an expert in Mesozoic birds and curator of fossil reptiles at the Field Museum in Chicago. “People get trapped in their time frame and can’t accept impermanence. By studying paleontology, you know that everything is impermanent, everything will change.”

“I very much care about human-caused extinctions,” O’Connor continues. “They’re terrible because they can be avoided, but at the same time, in five million years, all the destruction we’ve done will not matter. This is how it is for all mass extinctions. A mass extinction occurs, then five million years later, life is back to normal. So, we can do horrible things. All we’re going to do is hurt ourselves.”

O’Connor was born in Pasadena, California, one of four children. Her mother, a geochemist, often took O’Connor out into the field, so at a very young age she acquired an appreciation for minerology. In her first year of college, she got hooked on the study of evolution and decided to go into paleontology.

After completing her PhD at the University of Southern California, O’Connor moved to Beijing, where she worked at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology for ten years. For someone fascinated by the dinosaur–bird transition, this was the ideal place to land.

Birds, with their delicate bones, rarely fossilize. But in Liaoning Province, not far from Beijing, conditions were ideal. There, 130 million years ago, birds died, sank to the bottom of a lake, and were covered in volcanic ash. Now, the majority of all discovered Mesozoic bird fossils have come from this site, and the fossils aren’t only of bones, but also soft tissue, even traces of original biomolecules.

While studying the evolution of birds, O’Connor underwent her own evolution—a spiritual one. In the same way that her mother sparked her interest in science, it was her mother who encouraged her spiritually.

In her mid-twenties, O’Connor was unhappy. “I was angry about how the world was and hated myself,” she explains. Trying to help, her mother gave her an Eckhart Tolle book, but the way it talked about awakening frustrated

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