It's Alive

Scientists have created a detailed digital replica of a dinosaur's skeleton

August 16, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- Ralph Chapman tears through the corridors of Dinosaur Hall, past some of the oldest bones and loudest kids on earth.

"This is 'Mr. T' right here," he says, pulling up at a 500-pound horned skull propped on a makeshift pine scaffold.

"Mr. T" is Chapman's pet name for one of the oldest and most beloved residents of the National Museum of Natural History's Jurassic rest home: the 17-foot, fossilized skeleton of Triceratops horridus. Frozen in perpetual graze here since 1905, the rhinoceros-like reptile was the first of his kind ever displayed in a museum. For almost a century he set the standard for what a well-mounted triceratops should look like.

Now, as workmen disassemble Mr. T's mortal remains bone by bone, Chapman and his colleagues are bringing the 64-million-year-old beast back to life in a computer.

With a sophisticated optical scanner, the scientists have created an exquisitely detailed, three-dimensional photocopy of the skeleton, digitizing every inch of every bone.

Using the latest advances in 3-D technology and animation, the Smithsonian scientists can make Mr. T walk, run, eat and lock horns with his enemies. By experimenting electronically, they hope to unlock some long-standing mysteries and touch off a renaissance in the study of dinosaurs.

"Ninety-nine percent of the biomechanics of dinosaurs has yet to be figured out," Chapman says. "This way we get to see how triceratops worked as an animal."

Back in his lab -- a second-floor room fragrant with musty perfume of ancient bones and cluttered with dinosaur fossils, dinosaur cartoons and dinosaur-shaped drink bottles -- Chapman asks an assistant to punch up Mr. T on a desktop computer.

Suddenly, the animal springs to life. Horns tilted rakishly, its bony behind jacked up like a street rod, the three-dimensional skeleton accelerates across the screen -- at least in dinosaur terms.

Chapman, an avuncular 45-year-old paleontologist known as "Ralphasaurus Rex" to his colleagues, chuckles with delight. While other scientists have made 3-D models of a bone or two, he has created the first digital clone of an entire skeleton.

It wasn't easy. To make the project work, Chapman brought in Henry Wade, an engineer with Detroit-based Detroit Dimension Data who specializes in making detailed digital copies of objects that range from windshields to Barbie dolls.

Wade spent three painstaking weeks scanning Mr. T's 100-plus bones, taking measurements every one-fifth of a millimeter. That's detailed enough, Wade says, to capture "all the cracks and crevices." The skull alone required 14 million measurements, and by the time Wade finished, Mr. T filled 13 compact discs.

Eventually scientists around the world will be able to study Mr. T by downloading him over the Internet or ordering him on CD. Once they have him, they can measure his skeleton as accurately as if they were standing over the real bones with calipers. And it will be a lot easier, Chapman says, since paleontologists often resort to ladders, cherry pickers and other machines to work their way around a large specimen.

That's only one way the digital copy will help paleontologists overcome a major stumbling block in their work: their subjects are much bigger than they are.

To get a feel for how an animal's skeleton works, Chapman says, you have to hold the bones in your hand -- something that's nearly impossible with all but the smallest dinosaurs. The big bones of large reptiles like Mr. T weigh hundreds of pounds and stretch several stories into the sky once they're mounted.

"To study those things you'd need a forklift," Chapman says.

With Mr. T inside a computer, paleontologists can shrink or enlarge a bone to whatever size they want. Then, using the services of a "rapid prototyping" factory donated by toy maker Hasbro, they can make accurate plastic copies to any scale. (Is the rest of the toy industry listening?)

While fiddling with scaled-down replicas of Mr. T's bones -- using a spongy mousepad to simulate cartilage -- Chapman and his assistants have already made one fortuitous discovery: triceratops could lock its elbows. A small finding to be sure, but one that scientists hadn't been able to confirm because a real triceratops is too large to manipulate.

"The bones just kind of clicked into place," Chapman says. "It was great to feel that."

Today Mr. T's skull and a few odd bones are all that remain on the museum floor. Since October, conservators have been gingerly dismantling him after discovering that he was slowly turning to dust -- the effect of 90 years of Washington's oppressive humidity and the touch of countless greasy palms.

The museum will place Mr. T's original skeleton in storage -- accessible only to scholars -- and replace him with a plaster double next year. Thanks to the digital record of Mr. T's measurements, Chapman says, the fake will be more scientifically accurate than the real thing.

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