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Paleobiologist fills missing chapters in the book of life

As an honors student at Oberlin College in Ohio in the 1960s, UCLA paleobiologist J. William Schopf learned a great deal from his textbooks and professors about the most recent 500 million years of Earth’s history, dating from the rise of animal life in the Cambrian Period of geological time.
J. William Schopf office photoBut Earth’s earlier chapters were a blank book back then to scientists. Virtually nothing was known about what had happened during the Earth’s first pre-Cambrian 4 billion years. So when the bright college student learned from a professor about the “missing Precambrian record of life,” Schopf couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“Evolution was a fact, so there simply had to be a Precambrian fossil record,” he recalled in an essay he wrote recently for the journal Astrobiology. “That night, I returned to my dorm room, thumbed through my paperback copy of ‘The Origin of Species’ and — in my sophomoric naivete’ — decided this was a problem I could solve.”
A Herculean task perhaps, but not out of the realm of possibility. Over his career, Schopf was able to gather the most comprehensive knowledge of life's ancient history, from the formation of our planet 4.6 billion years ago to events half-a-billion years ago. The story of the Earth’s early years and the life it harbored is laid out in two books he edited: “Earth's Earliest Biosphere: Its Origin and Evolution” and “The Proterozoic Biosphere: A Multidisciplinary Study.” In 1977, he received the National Science Board's Alan T. Waterman Award as the outstanding young scientist in the nation.
Schopf, who joined UCLA’s faculty in 1968 at age 26, recently looked back at the many lessons he’s learned during his distinguished career and the reasons for his success in a first-person essay just published in “Pioneers of Astrobiology,” a feature in Astrobiology.
“In 1854,” Schopf wrote, “Louis Pasteur suggested that ‘Chance favors only the prepared mind.’ This aphorism has applied to my life in science, but only in small measure — I have had a huge number of ‘breaks,’ most all of which were beyond my control. Simply put, I have been terrifically lucky.”
That claim of luck is highly debatable, his colleagues would argue.
Currently director of UCLA's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life, Schopf attributes much of his success to “the sheer joy” he finds in his work and his “interdisciplinary understanding of the natural world.” He also credits his adherence to the values of honesty, integrity and decency toward others.
Schopf, whose father was a professor of paleobotany at Ohio State University and a distinguished scholar, recognized his career path early on. When asked by his teacher on the first day of fourth grade what he wanted to be, he stood up and bravely told the class, “I want to be a professor.” Far different from the responses of his classmates in Columbus, Ohio, who aspired to be professional football players, police officers and firefighters.
Over the course of his productive career, Schopf revealed a vast ancient fossil record that tells the history of the Earth’s first 4 billion years and changed our understanding of how evolution works. It was an amazing time period that produced the first living organism, photosynthesis, the ability to breathe oxygen, the modern food chain, the development of the atmosphere and oceans, the patterns of cell division used today and sexual reproduction.
Ancient Fossil-prv
A 650 million-year-old fossil from Kazakhstan is shown using different imaging techniques. Top: Optical image of fossil cyanobacterium. Middle: Confocal optical image of the same fossil. Bottom left: Close-up of a section of confocal optical image. Bottom right: Raman chemical image of the same boxed region. Courtesy of J. William Schopf.
Over the past decade, Schopf became the first scientist to use new techniques, called confocal laser scanning microscopy and Raman spectroscopy, to look at microscopic fossils inside ancient rocks to search for signs of life, such as organic cell walls — all without destroying the rocks or their entombed, tiny fossils. With these new tools, he and colleagues were able to produce 3-D images of ancient fossils 650 million to 3,500 million years old. In years to come, these methods can be used to show whether past life existed on Mars and other planets.
In his 1999 book, "Cradle of Life," Schopf recounted his discoveries, made over nearly four decades, about the earliest 85 percent of the history of life on Earth. The book earned the 2000 Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science for outstanding contributions to the literature of science.
Schopf also acknowledges scientists’ missteps. In his “Cradle” book, Schopf, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, cited two of science's stunning failures and drew the following lessons: “Who are we to smugly sit in judgment? Though it is now harder to be fooled since so much more is known, it's a sure bet that some of what passes as ‘known’ today will eventually turn to dust.”
On April 5, he will be awarded an honorary doctorate from South Africa’s University of Pretoria in recognition of his “fundamental groundbreaking contributions to global Precambrian paleontological studies for a period of almost 50 years, especially within the fields of Archaean microfossil recognition, the development of new investigative techniques and general studies on the evolution of life.”
The real reward for all his achievements, however, comes from his teaching and interactions with students, and from doing science itself, he maintains. He places great emphasis on teaching and consistently receives extremely favorable student evaluations.
“Science is enormous fun, and the greatest adventure ever devised,” Schopf said.
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