Tamilnadu-based paleontologist speaks on fossils and its identifications

Nirmal Rajah

Chennai: When Steven Speilberg’s Jurassic Park hit the screens in 1993, passion for paleontology spiked across the globe. Nirmal Rajah, a native from Trivandrum fell in love with fossils after witnessing Richard Hammond’s miraculous dinosaurs on screen. Fast forward to present day, Nirmal is now a paleontologist hunting bones and an educationist with background in zoology and biotech. He also runs a YouTube channel, ‘Scientific Thamizhans’ with his friend, Prabhu – an astrophotographer.

As a young boy, Nirmal detested math and was fond of zoology. “My love for fossils was rekindled at the American College in Madurai,” he recalls. Here, the zoology department has a museum where he came across a fossil for the first time. It triggered a wave of an undying urge to search for more fossils. Fate was in his favour, when he met a group of geologists who invited him for a field trip to Ariyalur to hunt ancient bones.

Later in 2012, Nirmal moved to Dubai for better opportunities. “I became a food safety officer for a hotel chain and then joined a genomics firm,” he says.

Today, Nirmal works at Sharjah Investment and Development Authority’s Mleiha Archaeological Centre as its educational coordinator. His work involves creating programmes for school students.

Art of hunting

Nirmal explains how he starts looking fossils. He sketches a map. “If you are going to a private land, you will be surprised that people are ready to let you in,” he says.

He begins by reading geological history of the land, digging his way through technical papers via Goggle scholar or textbooks. So, when Nirmal heads to a place that was submerged by oceans millions of years ago, he has a vague picture in his head on type of fossil he might hopefully stumble upon.

He carries plenty of bags and labels whatever he finds. “It’s like a crime scene investigation,” he says excitedly. “I mark GPS location of the fossil I find and enter details such as type of rock and soil.” It’s an essential step as Nirmal puts forth, “When an expert asks you for the rock, these are informations they will need to understand the fossil’s environment.” He also points, “Paleontology is not about digging as it happens only when necessary.”

Mapping a career

Nirmal says he had to find his way to build his career. Most of his fossil hunter friends are from National College in Tiruchi. “But there aren’t many paleontologists to teach you what to do,” he says.

Another issue Nirmal faced was that his background in zoology and biotechnology made people skeptical. “But it gave me an edge,” he smiles. “Paleontology is basically studying animals but the only difference is that they have been dead for a really long time.” He also stressed that learning geology helps one to understand land (‘If you know rocks, then it gets easier to figure out a fossil’) while evolutionary biology teaches one about changes undergone by living organisms since dawn of time.

Myth busters

In an era of believing information that trickles through WhatsApp rather than trusting mainstream media, Nirmal is worried by fake news that has inflicted science community. He expressed his astonishment over lack of rational thoughts in recent times. To curb and counter the tsunami of false informations, Nirmal recommends learning ‘Baloney Detection’ designed by legendary astronomer Carl Sagan. It’s a technique that makes one to logically ask themselves if ‘the concept of science in discussion is possible to exist’.
The mounting misinformations thus pushed Nirmal and his friend, Prabhu to kick start their own YouTube channel, ‘Scientific Thamizhans’. “We focus on paleoanthropology, astronomy and debunking popular myths,” says Nirmal. Today, their channel has over 73,000 subscribers.

Nirmal is also active on Facebook, often sharing fascinating photos of fossils he comes across or correcting popular ‘social media forwards’ that are leeched with lies. As the conversation comes to an end, Nirmal’s excitement for bones and science never seems to falter for a second. “If you find a fossil, you should share it with everyone,” he says.

Mohammed Rayaan