Feathers still fly
Dickson, David. "Feathers Still Fly in Row over
Fossil Bird" Science 238: 475-476, 23 October
Scientists at Britain's Natural History Museum
claim new evidence proves that their fossil of
Archaeopteryx is genuine. Two prominent
astronomers continue to insist that it is a fake.
London: The whiff of scandal has been drawing
crowds to the natural history branch of the British
Museum this summer, where a fossil described by the
museum as "perhaps the most important and valuable
in existence" has been put on public display for
the first time in 21 years to refute charges that
it is a fake.
The fossil in question is generally claimed by
paleontologists to be the 150-million-year-old
remains of an Archaeopteryx lithographica, the
first known bird. It was discovered in a German
limestone quarry in the middle of the 19th century,
and immediately purchased by the museum's then
director, Richard Owen, on the grounds that the
faint impressions of wing skeletons surrounding the
bones indicated that it was the "missing link"
between reptiles and birds.
Two years ago, this widely accepted conclusion was
challenged by two prominent--if controversial--
British scientists, the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle
and N.C. Wickramasinghe, a mathematician and
astronomer at University College, Cardiff. Using
photographic evidence to support claims initially
put forward by Israeli physicist Lee Spetner, they
argued that a 19th-century forger had cleverly used
a mixture of paste and limestone fragments to add
the impression of wings to a genuine dinosaur
fossil, possibly to increase its sale value to the
The staff of the museum have reacted heatedly to
the charges, which included the implication that
they had since been responsible for covering up the
forgery. In a detailed rebuttal published in
Science last year, they cited a list of reasons--
including a precise matching of the hairline cracks
on the feathered areas of the two slabs between
which the fossil was sandwiched--why they believed
the fossil to be genuine (Science, 2 May l986, p.
Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, however, have remained on
the attack. Earlier this year they received
considerable publicity in the British media when
they held a press conference to repeat their
charges, accusing the museum of further complicity
by refusing to provide some specified samples of
the rock for spectroscopic analysis.
The matching of the hairline cracks, they said,
could have been produced by the same process that
produces fissures in plaster applied to a wall that
is already cracked (the museum argues that the
presence of calcite crystals in the cracks reveals
that they cannot be of recent origin).
Now the museum has responded at two further levels.
The first has been a public exhibition, mounted
under the title "The Feathers Fly," which
summarizes in popular form both the charges being
made by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe and the detailed
response of the museum's scientific experts to each
of the individual claims.
The second has been the release of some new
ultraviolet photographs of the Archaeopteryx
fossil. According to the museum staff, any organic
glue mixed with the limestone cement used to make
the feather impressions would have shown up under
the ultraviolet source. Cocks indicated that he
would have been delighted, in a way, if it had
turned out to be a forgery, as the museum's staff
had been the first to demonstrate in the case of
the Piltdown man. The fact that, in contrast to
the fossil bones, the areas surrounding the
feathers did not fluoresce demonstrates
ocnclusively, they argue, that no organic glue
could have been used, and therefore--since inorganic
glues were unknown at the time--that the
impressions could not have been made in the way
"We had to go further than our Science article
because of the press conference given by Hoyle and
Wickramasinghe, where they claimed to have refuted
the arguments that we made," says Robin Cocks, the
museum's curator of paleontology. "One year ago we
thought they would go away; we just got tired of
Cocks says that, although other paleontological
evidence suggests that the Archaeopteryx fossils,
of which five other specimens have since been
identified, was "the right fossil in the right
place at the right time," from a scientific point
of view the museum would be "delighted" if it was
shown to be a forgery.
"Indeed, there are plenty of young Turks in the
paleontology community who would be only too
delighted to put the boot in; but at present there
is not one vertebrate paleontologist who supports
the claims being made by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe,"
The two astronomers continue to reject the museum's
protests to innocence; they maintain their
conviction that both the London fossil and a second
one discovered in the same location 16 years later,
which is currently in a musum in Berlin, are
forgeries. They play down, for example, the
significance of the latest experiments that the
museum claims are conclusive.
"We have looked into the whole question of the
behavior of material under ultraviolet light and
have found that although most organic substances do
indeed flow under such light, not all of them do,"
says Wickramasinghe. "We therefore feel that if
could have been possible to devise organic glues
that do not fluorese, so the weakness of the
fluorescence effect does not prove very much, and
the new evidence is therefore not as decisive as
the museum is claiming."
Wickramasinghe rejects the claim that he and Hoyle
are keen to show that the Archaeopteryx is a fake
partly because it would provide support for their
own broader--and equally controversial--ideas that
life originated in space and subsequently arrived
on the earth in a meteorite shower about 65 million
years ago. "We have absolutely no vested interest
in showing the fossil to be a forgery, since our
own theory of life from space would not fall if the
fossil was shown to be genuine," he says.
He is also strongly critical of the museum's
refusal to provide its critics twith a small sample
for analysis of the limestone from immediately
beneath the fossil (an earlier sample, whose
analysis has recently been completed by Spetner in
Israel, came from a different part of the rock slab
in which the fossil was found). "The whole
authenticity issue could be resolved with a mere
pinhead of the material," Wickramasinghe says.
Cocks at the Natural History Museum maintains that
the astronomers have yet to produce sufficient
"proof" of their hypothesis that would justify
providing them with the new sample they are now
requesting. "If you were in charge of the crown
jewels, would you start prizing out emeralds and
handing them out to anyone who claimed that they
were fake?" he says.
Feelings among the museum's scientific staff
continue to run high about the charges that have
been made because of both their nature and the time
spent trying to refute them. Many are also upset
about the personal language in which what they
describe as the "outrageous allegations" have been
"We feel a little sad that two scientists as
eminent as Fred Hoyle and Wickramasinghe have to
back up their arguments by accusing other
scientists of being dishonest," says Angela Milner,
curator of fossil birds.
Indeed, some members of the scientific staff are
uneasy about the evenhandedness of the public
exhibition, where the evidence for and against the
physicists' charges is given equal space, leaving
the conclusion open for visitors to decide. "If we
had been doing the exhibition, it would have been
more open and shut," says Cocks.
But the museum authorities have been able to have
the last word. The exhibition organizers had
produced for sale two sets of buttons, one
declaring "Archaeopteryx is a fake" and the other
that "Archaeopteryx is genuine." In the end,
however, only one of the buttons, however, is
available at the museum shop; the prospect of
thousands of school children circulating London
with official-looking badges declaring one of the
museum's prize possessions to be a forgery seems to
have been something that even the most open-minded
of museum administrators found difficult to accept.
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