A 'rock star' of the dinosaur world comes to the Berkshires
Each year, paleontologist Jack Horner addresses thousands of fans and scientists in the U.S. and around the world. His TED talk has been seen by millions. Four dinosaurs are even named after him. And on Saturday, he'll make a stop in the Berkshires.
Horner, who spent 30-plus years as curator of paleontology at Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies, earning honorary degrees and awards including the MacArthur Fellowship, will speak at the West Stockbridge Old Town Hall, hosted by Shaker Dam Coffeehouse and West Stockbridge Historical Society, at 6:30 p.m., Saturday.
"As soon as the semester's over, I go on the road lecturing," said Horner, who currently teaches at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
Horner has uncovered fossils in many locations, including Mongolia, Patagonia and Romania. Dinosaurs lived for 150 million years on every continent, he said. Each summer he returns to his native Montana — "the best place in the world" — with right-aged rock exposed and an abundance of fossils. He visits digs run by former students who are now professors.
Horner found his first fossil at 5 years old, a dinosaur bone at 8, skeleton at 13. His mother drove him wherever he wanted to go across Montana and into Canada. He later found one of the first dinosaur eggs in the Western Hemisphere near that early bone.
"I definitely feel I was born this way," he said.
As uncovering a sauropod can take years — his largest measured 80 feet — Horner prefers finding baby dinosaurs. "Thousands [fit] in a Ziplock bag," he said.
In the 1950s and '60s, paleontologists lost interest in dinosaurs, regarding them as "big cold-blooded reptiles who wandered for billions of years looking for a place to go extinct," he said.
His University of Montana professor told him to study mammal fossils like everyone else, but Horner said no, he was going to study dinosaurs. Dyslexic, he failed to graduate, he said.
As he knew a lot about dinosaurs, Princeton University employed him in 1975 to collect and clean bones for professors. In 1978, Horner found a nest of baby dinosaurs, proving dinosaurs cared for their young. He named the species "Maiasaura" meaning "Good Mother Lizard." His discovery made headlines around the world.
It was a turning point, he said.
"People realized dinosaurs were more like birds, warmblooded, very social animals," he said.
Some "flat-earthers," as he calls them, remain unconvinced animals share common ancestry. "People are conservative about change," he said.
With professorial support, Horner published papers and won National Science Foundation grants — all without a degree. Even at Montana State University, he wasn't allowed to teach.
After receiving the MacArthur Fellowship, however, "they said I could do whatever I wanted." He raised millions of dollars for research.
When awarded an honorary University of Montana doctorate in 1986, the professor who hooded him had flunked him seven times as an undergraduate, he said.
Even his father frowned on his many accomplishments until his favorite magazine, Time, profiled his son in 1990. "After that he didn't say anything more," Horner recalled.
Horner was technical advisor to Steven Spielberg's blockbuster "Jurassic Park" film series. While the dinosaur dig is modeled after Horner's own camp, "virtually all the dinosaurs are wrong," he said. "Meat-eating dinosaurs were feathered and very colorful. In 1993, we knew a lot less than we know now."
Kim Hubbard, art and coffee curator at Stanmeyer Gallery and Shaker Dam Coffeehouse, invited Horner to the Berkshires and will celebrate the paleontologist's birthday at a reception following the talk.
Since Hubbard — a former National Geographic, Audubon magazine and Obama White House photo editor — took the job at photographer John Stanmeyer's coffeehouse and art gallery last spring, she has attracted top-tier speakers through her extensive connections.
"It's a rare opportunity to listen to one of the world's foremost experts on dinosaurs," she said. "He is larger than life, an honest-to-goodness rock star."
She met Horner at a 2011 paleontology conference while working on a National Geographic story. They recently drove thousands of miles through Montana and Canada, visiting his major discovery sites.
"I sat in a dinosaur nest with eggshells everywhere," she recalled, "it was unbelievable."
Through July 15, she will exhibit 30 micrograph images of internal bone and teeth structures photographed through a petrographic microscope, with jewel-toned colors identifying specific densities and tissues.
"They're like abstract art," she said, "all taken from Jack's work."
Hubbard credits a childhood dinosaur book with inspiring her professional curiosity. Homer finds children are fascinated by dinosaurs, even when scientists lose interest.
"They were really different kinds of animals than anything alive today — gigantic, the largest land animal — and they're gone," he said. "They feed the imagination."
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