The Dinosaur Discoverer

How a misfit revolutionized paleontology with a big boost from philanthropy

Jack Horner likes to break things. Precious things—like dinosaur bones, or the occasional 80-million-year-old egg.

A lot of people think of a dinosaur bone “as a treasure, just the way it is,” he says, leaning forward and staring intently, “even though it’s obvious that there’s more information inside than there is outside.” Against resistance, Horner proved that in some specimens overlooked by other scientists there is much more than meets the eye. Which is fitting, because he was nearly an overlooked specimen himself.

Jack Horner revolutionized paleontology with what he found inside dinosaur fragments. He is equally renowned for a series of landmark field discoveries of fossils, and for a body of theorizing that upended many previous ideas about dinosaur behavior. The scientific adviser for the Jurassic Park movies (and inspiration for the paleontologist character in those films, Dr. Grant), Horner’s is the kind of singular, eccentric scientific mind that even a Spielberg fictionalization can’t do justice to.

Born a year after the end of World War II, infancy found Horner on the banks of a desert river—not quite in a basket and reeds, but living in a canvas tent in Montana. Along with his parents, his tentmates included a serpent: a bull snake who paid rent in pest control. Outside was a deafening rock-crushing machine that churned out product for the family gravel business.

They eventually moved into a more middle-class existence. But Horner was never fully tamed. He blew out the windows of the family basement with a chemistry experiment, built a Van de Graaff generator and a Tesla coil, and launched a rocket fueled by zinc and sulfur at the local airport. He found his first dinosaur fossil at age eight.

These successes were diversions from a tortured educational experience that continued well into adulthood. While he was winning high-school science fairs, he was failing in class after class. In one he received a D-minus-minus-minus, which his teacher invented for the occasion because, as he told Horner, “he never wanted to see me again.”

Owing in part to Montana’s forgiving state university admissions policy in the 1960s, Horner was able to enroll at the University of Montana as a geology major. But he flunked out of college seven times. His education was also interrupted by a tour of duty in Vietnam, during which he says he kept sane by polishing the mirror for a telescope he was building.

When Horner finally “finished” college, he had no B.S., no B.A., indeed little academic credit of any sort. But he had a lot of knowledge and an unbroken determination to become a dinosaur paleontologist. He even had a “thesis of sorts”: research and data which would later be the foundation for three published papers. But with no degree and a near-zero GPA, he worked for a while as a truck driver, then along with his brother bought and ran the family gravel business.

He continued to hunt fossils in his spare time, along with his college friend and longtime dig collaborator, the late Bob Makela. And Horner applied for paleontology jobs at every museum he could think of. Again and again. Finally he landed a position, low-ranked and low-paid, as a technician at Princeton’s Natural History Museum.

One summer early on, when he needed $10,000 to cover the costs of his dig season, Horner took his first stab at a grant application. His best (actually only) idea was to write to the Rainier Brewing Company and request sponsorship, “explaining that Bob and I drank a lot of Rainier whenever we were in the field.” Amazingly, Rainier came through with the funding, but Princeton officials told him “there is no way in this world you’re going to take money from the Rainier Brewing Company.” In the end, the university supplied him with $10,000, and Rainier sent 125 cases of beer.

Horner’s talents in the fossil beds got him promoted to a research position, and soon he had his first publication in the prestigious journal Nature, and was running his own projects. By 1982, he’d been hired by Montana State University in Bozeman to launch and head a dinosaur research program at the Museum of the Rockies.

On the day of his fortieth birthday in 1986, the University of Montana granted the dropout an honorary Ph.D. He received word simultaneously that he’d been awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” By the 1990s, Horner’s dinosaur research program had become one of the most productive in the world, regularly dynamiting tenets of conventional wisdom.

Jack Horner (Museum of the Rockies)

Good mother lizard

Horner’s first big discovery came in 1978. In Montana for the summer dig season, he and Bob Makela visited an amateur collector who’d found some fossils and wanted an opinion on them. Horner identified them as belonging to an adult duck-billed dinosaur, and of no particular significance. They were headed out the door when the collector picked up a coffee can full of tiny fossils and fished out two small bits for an additional opinion. Horner believed they belonged to a baby duck-bill.

Baby dinosaur specimens were almost unknown in the Americas. So Horner and Makela drove out to where the fossils had been collected. They found a nest with the babies still inside, the first such discovery anywhere. Within days, they had excavated 15 nests. As the dig expanded it became clear they were on to an entire colony, and that the colony was one of several in a vast nesting area used across dino generations. Over 20 years, Horner and his team excavated hundreds of eggs, including some containing the first fossilized dinosaur embryos ever discovered. He also recovered the skeletons of scores of babies, juveniles, and adults at the site that came to be known as Egg Mountain.

These finds, fleshed out with a compelling analysis by Horner, provided the first strong evidence that dinosaurs, unlike reptiles, but like birds and mammals, had cared for their young. The specimens belonged to a new genus that Horner christened Maiasaura, or “good mother lizard.” Horner found that Maiasaurs had a high growth rate and metabolism consistent with at least partial warm-bloodedness, and migrated seasonally in herds to avoid predators, to a breeding ground 60 miles away. This work transformed understanding of dinosaur behavior, in particular demolishing the view that they had no family or social lives.

Horner’s instincts have led him to many other great finds. In 1984, he and a grad student uncovered a layer of ancient ash that turned out to be the edge of a bone bed over a mile long, containing the jumbled remains of no less than 10,000 Maiasaurs. (Horner interprets this killing field as an entire herd wiped out in a volcanic explosion, the bones later scrambled by a flood.) And his crews have found several of America’s most famous Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons, including five discovered in just one summer.

Plucking groundbreaking finds from a vast landscape of rubble and common fossils takes cultivated perception. Many fragments of baby dinosaur bones had actually been found by collectors decades before, but misidentified as belonging to some unknown species of small animal, with scant attention paid. Horner anticipated the revolution latent in those practically invisible scraps of fossil in a coffee can. He’s fond of quoting Branch Rickey’s aphorism about baseball: “Luck is the residue of design.”

The making of a dino prodigy

If discerning patterns invisible to others are why Horner isn’t still driving a truck for a living, the discernment of others has also played a role in his success. His mentors looked past his outward failures and saw Horner as Horner could see certain fossils: something remarkable that to everyone else looked common.

It was Horner’s parents who encouraged his love of learning as a boy, and drove him around to fossil-hunting expeditions. It was a Montana geology professor who, blissfully ignorant of Horner’s grades, recognized a budding intellect behind his science-fair project and encouraged him to apply for college. It was a college adviser who wrote letters of support that allowed him to keep re-enrolling each time he flunked out. It was his supervisor at Princeton who saw the scientist in the technician. It was institutions like the Museum of the Rockies, the University of Montana, Montana State University, the National Science Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation that took the researcher who lacked any degree at all and, on the strength of his work, finally admitted him into the circle of academic legitimacy.

And all along the way, it has been philanthropists who underwrote his research even when conventional funding sources closed their doors to him. The NSF provided critical funding in Horner’s early years as head of MSU’s paleontology program, and continues to offer some support. But NSF grants are often capricious and limited to narrow projects. For unproven ideas, for iconoclastic approaches, for general support, Horner (and thousands of other scientists) relies more on philanthropists than on the science funding bureaucracies.

Philanthropy has been especially important in bringing science to the public. While Horner was building a renowned dinosaur research program in the 1980s and 1990s, the museum had no space to display even its most impressive new specimens. Enter Tom Siebel. Siebel was the founder of software firm Siebel Systems, which was acquired by Oracle in 2006. He is active in philanthropy, giving to numerous scientific, educational, and community programs, and founding the Meth Project, a public education and advertising initiative that helped cut Montana’s meth abuse by two thirds, and has expanded to seven other states (see “Lassoing Montana Meth,” May/June 2007)

Siebel has been a part-time resident of Montana for decades, and owns and operates the 75,000-acre Dearborn Ranch there. When he first visited the Museum of the Rockies, he says, he was struck by “not only the research that they were doing,” but by the way they illustrated the course of life “over a couple hundred million years in a very accessible manner.” The Museum of the Rockies was able to take complicated information and tell a story.

Siebel decided to help the museum grow. With a $2.3 million gift and hands-on involvement, he helped Horner open the Siebel Dinosaur Complex in 2007. The new wing lives up to Siebel’s vision of a museum experience that’s more than butterflies pinned to a wall. Walking into the hall, you’re met first by low light and an exotic soundscape—the chirps, squeaks, and caws of insects, dinosaurs, and other animals of a wild habitat long gone. A long-necked sauropod strides high above the hall. And two gaudily feathered and colored Deinonychus predators clamber up its neck, intent on murder.

In the next room, the complex turns from immersion to investigation. A row of Triceratops skulls in increasing order of size and animal age illustrates the sequencing techniques that Horner innovated to produce novel conclusions about dinosaurs’ growth patterns and life cycles. The largest skull has a pair of prominent holes absent in the others. The exhibit explains how Horner showed that these holes were not, as first believed, the indicators of some new, larger tri-horned species, but rather a trait that Triceratops developed later in their lives. A separate display shows a recreated Triceratops, with one half displaying the skeleton and the other covered in mock skin. Ringed around the room are similar specimens and exhibits for myriad other species.

The power of philanthropy

Paleontology funding needs fall into three major categories: field excavations, staff and equipment for research, and museums where findings can be displayed. The latter category is the most expensive, and the most reliant on donor support. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History closed its fossil and dinosaur hall in 2014 for a massive, five-year-long renovation funded largely by a $35 million gift from David Koch. The new hall will feature a specimen from the collection of the Museum of the Rockies—one of the world’s largest and most complete T. Rex skeletons, excavated by Horner’s team 25 years ago.

Donors are also very important in the other two categories: digs and study programs. Though Montana State University covers some of his overhead, most of Horner’s work actually depends on grants and donations. His entire program, including lab equipment, salaries for staff, summer digs, and stipends for grad students, has cost only $11 million over its now third-of-a-century operation. Horner expresses gratitude to the university and the NSF but notes that “quite frankly, my donors are more engaged than the government is.”

A student volunteer carefully excavates a fragment of Diplodocus bone at Horner’s Hell Creek dig. (Ari Schulman)

The ability of philanthropy to respond quickly, and flexibly, without suffocating rules or red tape, often makes it invaluable. An example from the summer of 2000: During the dig of an Edmontosaurus, a crewman wandered off from the site to eat his lunch in solitude on a ledge. Glancing up, he saw sticking out of the cliff face a bone he recognized as belonging to the foot of a T. Rex.

A massive excavation ensued. It was funded primarily by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold. When the specimen had finally been prepared in a plaster jacket, the crew had no way to move it out. It weighed 3,000 pounds, and they were miles from any roads. Enter donor improvisation number two: Philanthropist Terry Kohler lent a helicopter belonging to his Windway Capital Corporation to remove the piece. Kohler, a former Air Force pilot, flew the bird himself. He continued to help fly fossils out of Horner’s digs for many years, and gave $650,000 to analyze them.

Even with the helicopter, the jacketed specimen turned out to be too heavy to lift. As a result, the crew had to fracture the Tyrannosaur’s femur. But this didn’t panic Horner, and indeed he turned it into another great discovery. After the bone had been sawed in half, one of Horner’s students, Mary Schweitzer, took the opportunity to peer inside.

Using acid to dissolve hard mineralizations, Schweitzer discovered something shocking: preserved blood vessels and cells—the first soft tissue ever found in a fossil, and a 68-million-year-old one to boot. The bone’s interior also revealed a kind of tissue, previously known only in birds, that suggested that the animal was female (a determination usually impossible to make from dinosaur bones) and had died within a week or two of laying eggs.

Battling for bones

Philanthropy has been intertwined with dinosaur research from the beginning. As John Noble Wilford recounts in The Riddle of the Dinosaur, the two towering patrons of the original dinosaur fossil expeditions to the American West were Othniel Charles Marsh, a paleontology professor at Yale with an inherited fortune, and Edward Drinker Cope, an independent scientist in New Jersey with a smaller but also substantial personal war chest he was willing to apply to fossil hunting. In 1877, each received shipments from amateur collectors in Wyoming Territory and the new state of Colorado.

The scientists recognized the specimens as residue of the recently discovered class of creatures called dinosaurs, and knew there must be more. Thus began a protracted battle between the two men, each seeking to purchase the loyalty of the collectors and to assemble expeditions to find and clean out the biggest fossil beds before the other could. At one point, one of Marsh’s men smashed fossils he couldn’t collect in order to keep Cope’s men from getting them. But both made significant scientific contributions, describing nearly 2,000 new genera and species between them, until Cope’s funds were exhausted 12 years on and the battle of the bones drew to a close.

At the start of the twentieth century, Andrew Carnegie created a new wing for his Pittsburgh museum and commanded his chief collector, Earl Douglass, to find something “big as a barn” to fill it. Douglass soon obliged with a nearly hundred-foot-long specimen of a long-necked herbivore, one of the largest land-animal skeletons ever found. Carnegie liberally funded the massive excavation at what is now Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, and the new species was dubbed Apatosaurus Louisae after Carnegie’s wife. Douglass later turned up another new species, nearly as giant, which was christened Diplodocus Carnegii. It ended up in the new Pittsburgh wing, and replicas were dispatched to other museums far and wide.

The Siebel Dinosaur Complex dramatically illustrates Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (Museum of the Rockies)

Digging with donors

Montana is a newish state but an ancient land. Tens of millions of years ago the area was perched on the edge of an inland sea that teemed with life. The petrified layers of coast and ocean sediment laid down in that age now jut upward, eroding away.

On a bright July day, I trailed behind Horner’s dusty pickup out to a dig site 30 or so miles from Bozeman. The site is stunning: much of the lush movie A River Runs Through It was filmed on the Gallatin River, in view of the dig, and beyond the river the peaks of the Rockies rise into view.

Paleontologist and pilot Terry Kohler helped Horner’s team fly fossils (Museum of the Rockies)

The dig is perched on a hill, private property. The landowners have donated its use to Horner’s team summer after summer for decades. Horner comes out periodically to check on progress. On a day-to-day basis the operation is overseen by his collaborator Bob Harmon. Like Horner, Harmon is a former amateur collector, a one-time carpenter who Horner brought into his crew. The hammer-swinger rewarded Jack by finding the T. Rex sticking out of the cliff; the specimen was named “B. Rex” in his honor. Today Bob is chief preparator at the Museum of the Rockies.

But it’s really an MSU grad student, Cary Woodruff, who’s running this show. The work is providing material for his thesis on development of the Diplodocus. He’s trying to find out when in childhood and adolescence the animals had their “growth spurts.” Here the crew is unearthing a sub-adult Diplodocus that Woodruff describes as “remarkably complete.” The site previously yielded an Apatosaurus.

To get down to the layer of rock where the bones lay, the diggers use powered jackhammers. But once in the bone zone, all work must be done by hand. During my visit the crew is nibbling through a thick sandstone that comes off not in chunks but little flakes, with an individual worker sometimes excavating just a few handfuls over the span of a day. This chiseling requires sitting in an awkward position and repeating the same motion for hours straight—during which the romance of encountering a creature that lay hidden in stillness for epochs softens a smidge.

But the work passes amidst lively conversation, ambling from the rivalry between geology and biology to the asteroid extinction hypothesis to, of course, the relative merits of the various Jurassic Park movies. It continues later at the dinner table, where the crew toys with a coprolite (fossilized dino doo) that serves as a table weight preventing trays of food from sliding down the precipitously slanted buffet.

Often leading these conversations are Ed and Janet Sands, loyal Horner donors who are on a summer road trip and have stopped in at the dig for a spell. During the day, Ed is down on the ground, chiseling away with the rest of the crew, while Janet is perched on the elevated rim of the site, making lovely field sketches and watercolors of the excavation. The Sands have a family foundation based in Santa Barbara, and they were introduced to Horner by Ed’s brother Dave, a fellow professor at MSU who researches biotech solutions to crop pathologies. Dave and his wife Kippy are also longtime donors to Horner, along with several members of their extended family. (In the acknowledgements of Horner’s latest book, he simply thanks “the Sands families.”)

Ed and Janet also fund research on human origins. They have worked closely with Donald Johanson, the Arizona State University paleoanthropologist who was one of the discoverers of the three-million-year-old hominid skeleton popularly known as Lucy. At the dig, Janet is in the midst of planning the second Santa Barbara Symposium on Human Origins at the city’s Museum of Natural History.

Horner usually comes to the Sands when some fairly modest and definite need arises in his program, often involving graduate students. These students, says Janet, “just need a little helping hand.” “More than a dinner,” she laughs, pointing to the meal that she and Ed prepared and offered up this evening. “Then later you’ll see what that student has discovered and published. And that’s really, really exciting.”

Cary Woodruff, one of their current beneficiaries, describes how funding for his Diplodocus digs, the labwork, staff time, and his conference travel all depend on the support of donors like Ed and Janet. “You want to talk about a result—bang for your buck—you literally get to launch a student’s graduate career.”

Horner has been “very, very, very encouraging of young scientists,” Janet later says, noting his open-mindedness and his emphasis on building an effective team. She argues that “historically, a lot of science is done in a silo,” but rather than shielding his own work Horner engages with researchers across disciplines—and, crucially, with students. “Education’s a great multiplier,” she says. Students “affect their colleagues and other students over a lifetime career.”

Ed and Janet Sands see a special mandate to support science education, because they believe science has a unique ability to inspire young people to learn. They also fund Science Matters, a public-private partnership that aims to make inquiry-based science part of the elementary curriculum in Santa Barbara’s public schools. Janet has worked closely with students and says that the science courses are always the ones that get them most engaged. “It’s just an eye-opener. These kids know they’re on the bottom end of the social scale, yet you give them an academically excellent science curriculum and you can just see them straighten up when they come to class—‘they think I’m smart.’ It’s amazing.”

The power of being dyslexic

One morning during our sauropod dig, the Make-A-Wish Foundation brings a young boy out to the site, and he gets to join in as a junior paleontologist for a few hours. Horner does this kind of thing often. He once flew overseas on a few days’ notice to meet another boy in the late stages of a terminal illness.

Horner’s zeal for helping young people may come in part from a determination to do better for his students and other children than most of his teachers did by him. It was not until he was in his thirties that Jack discovered why he had struggled so mightily during his school years: He has dyslexia. When he was a student, the condition was not widely known or understood by educators.

Horner’s disability is usually described in media reports as mild. But, he tells me bluntly, “I can’t read. I honestly, absolutely cannot read.” He points up at a nearby sign. “When I read anything, I have to read every single letter, one letter at a time.” In part, he says, it’s a matter of lacking short-term memory, so that it can be difficult even to remember all of the letters in a word by the time he gets to the end of it.

Horner is involved with groups that gather dyslexics to discuss how they can succeed in a lexical world. He is also connected to researchers like Harvard’s Vanessa Rodriguez who are working to help teachers learn how to recognize young students like himself. Sometimes teachers will bring these pupils to Horner, and he’ll take them out to his digs. “It’s pretty easy to tell when a kid really wants to learn something,” he says, even if he “fails all of his tests, or can’t read.”

Many of Horner’s observers see his learning disability as conferring a paradoxical advantage, like the heightened ability of the blind to hear. In Horner’s case, he seems to have an acutely increased spatial intelligence. “Talk about learning differences, my God, he’s got thinking differences,” says Tom Siebel. “He just does not think like the rest of us.” Horner certainly seems to have an uncanny ability to pick significant finds out of crowded fields of information.

Rather than reading, he says, he sees and thinks in images. He even tries to teach his literate students “how to be dyslexic.” He tells me, “That is the only way dyslexics learn: you have to interact with things.”

In addition to breaking bones open to examine their internal microstructures, Horner has brought sophisticated imaging technologies such as CT and LIDAR scanners to possible fossil sites. He has pioneered new visual analyses of excavated bones and used the results to draw dramatic conclusions about dinosaur biomechanics, metabolisms, and growth rates. Horner sees spatial intelligence as about something more than just vision. He’s expanded his approach into a kind of general theory of inquiry, which he’s variously described as “imaginative” or “being dyslexic.”

At one point, Horner draws in a deep breath and says, “I think people read too much. I really do. I think they just read way too much, and they end up thinking like people before them. So they end up with a lot of preconceived ideas of what is and what isn’t.” He encounters this problem with his students, who “just regurgitate that same old stuff.” He tells them “if you quit reading and start thinking, and start using your brain to actually acquire your information visually…then you can come up with other ideas.”

The blinders of conventional wisdom

Horner—who has coauthored ten books for children and adults, and is highly fluent in the scientific terminology and theories of his discipline—is being more rhetorical than literal in some of this. He is deeply serious, however, about getting people to recognize how often their lines of inquiry are constrained by conventional thinking. His irreverence about breaking dinosaur eggs is a case in point. In the 1970s, he “couldn’t find a museum in the world” that would let him break open eggs or bones. So he found his own, and “just so happened to have a ball-peen hammer.”

It was the same story with baby dinosaur remains. Many paleontologists believed that for some reason or another they had just not been preserved in the fossil record. When Horner was first shown the bits of baby Maiasaura skeleton, he quickly realized that this belief had become self-fulfilling: paleontologists had only been looking for bones in certain kinds of geological formations because those were the only ones where they’d found them before. Finding Maiasaura eggs in a different sort of formation simply meant that the dinosaurs which lived and died mainly in coastal areas had migrated far inland to breed. This quickly improvised insight prompted him to keep looking when he found the first nest, realizing that where there was one there might well be more.

Janet Sands, faithful contributor to Horner’s program, paints watercolors of the dig in her journal (Janet Sands)

Horner believes the same blinders have delayed many other developments in the field, including the recent discovery of fossilized soft tissue. Much of the reason soft tissue hadn’t been found before is that the prevailing theories of fossilization deem its preservation impossible. So no one looked for it.

Even the word dinosaur, Horner believes, has hampered the study of these creatures. Meaning “fearfully great lizard,” the term coined soon after they were discovered has prejudiced generations of paleontologists into believing that dinosaurs must be fundamentally reptilian, delaying recognition of the myriad traits they more closely share with birds.

In recent years, he’s taken on one of dinosaur paleontology’s most sacred cows: the idea that Tyrannosaurus Rex was a menacing predator. To the consternation of countless young fans, Horner suggests that T. Rex may have been a plodding, opportunistic scavenger—less lion than hyena. And not prone to chasing Jeeps full of terrified scientists.

One paleontologist, asked if she agrees with this theory, says, “Oh, not at all.” She outlines her case for the established idea of T. Rex as apex predator. Then she adds, “But I think it’s great that he’s raising the question.”

Chasing the chickenosaurus

Walking the walk, Horner has not shied from public reversals of his own beliefs over the years. One dwarfs the others in audacity. In 1997, Horner praised Jurassic Park’s depiction of dinosaurs, but pooh-poohed the movie’s premise, saying that the creatures “are long gone from this planet and they will never return.” The idea of bringing them back to life “is fantasy in the first degree.” But in a limited way, Horner is now trying to do just that.

In a 2009 book and a TED Talk that’s been viewed 2 million times, Horner describes his plan. While the DNA molecules of the dinosaurs themselves have long since degraded, much of the information they contained is preserved in their living descendants—birds. By manipulating the genomes of birds in their embryonic stage, researchers could eventually flip on and off the right combinations to recreate certain dinosaur traits. Or some reasonable facsimile.

Horner calls the hypothetical critter a “dino chicken,” or “chickenosaurus.” He describes his role in the project as “instigator and recruiter.” Among the team he’s assembled are researchers at McGill University who are working on restoring the tail and teeth that birds lost long ago. Horner has received a number of philanthropic donations for the project, including $1 million from George Lucas. He thinks a few significant traits of dinosaurs could be reverse-engineered within three to five years.

Horner is a bit evasive on just what the point of this project is. He has talked about the raw scientific knowledge that could result, possible medical applications, but also, whimsically, about the fun of having a dinosaur as a pet, or of the addition of a new special item to the menu at KFC. The imaginative and inspirational value of the project seems to be its first appeal for him. Children, he says, can’t get interested in the nitty-gritty of genetics and developmental biology “unless they can tie it together with something they know. And dinosaurs are a thing they know. We can teach them just by talking about the dino-chicken project.”

Something similar, he thinks, is true for grown-ups: Regardless of the project’s success or failure, it could unify efforts around an ambitious scientific goal, with benefits that can’t be entirely foreseen in advance. Dino Chicken is Horner’s answer to the Apollo Project. But in keeping with his suspicion of entrenched thinking, he doesn’t mind the opportunity to tick off establishment science either. When he puckishly tells me that the project “irritates a lot of people, and a lot of them are scientists,” I sense that this is not incidental to why he’s pursuing it.

Horner’s theory that Tyrannosaurs were scavengers, not predators, is controversial among paleontologists—one of the many ways that his work has challenged the field. (Museum of the Rockies)

Philanthropy and eccentricity

Jack Horner is a living testament to one of the great lessons from the history of science: discovery is intertwined with the peculiarities of personality and human interest. Advances in paleontology and other sciences have often been driven by the idiosyncrasies of its leading figures, and by inflammation of the imagination and the spirit along with engagement of the mind. Philanthropists, much more than government agencies and other science bureaucracies, have been able to recognize and reward the deeply personal spurs behind much scientific advance.

“When I would go to the NSF and ask for money for a good project,” says Horner, “they would oftentimes say, it is a good project, and we’d like to fund it, but can you do it for half as much?” But when he went to private donors the response would often be, “are you sure this is enough?” When people put up their own money, “if they really like what you’re doing, they want to see the project succeed.”

Public funding agencies are bound by safe, established views, by political priorities, by bean-counting measurements, and by a desire for certainty. Their priorities are rarely ambitious or at all imaginative, says Horner. Government grant proposals must be narrow, describable in detail even before they begin, and able to show immediate results. (Horner shares this experience with many other practitioners at the leading edge of other fields of science. See, for instance, Philanthropy’s interview with Leroy Hood.)

Horner’s philanthropic donors are vastly more willing to be flexible and patient, to take more risks, to pursue aims that are open-ended, and even sometimes, as Horner describes the dino-chicken project, a little “wacky.” That’s why private support has been so important in his career.

Philanthropy’s tolerance for adventurous inquiry has been a perfect match with Jack Horner. Near the end of our last meeting, I ask the unlettered professor if there are questions I should have asked him. He furrows his brow, pauses for a long moment, and answers, “I don’t know.” Smiling, he adds, “I like any good question.”

Ari N. Schuman is senior editor of  The New Atlantis. 

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