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A pigment of our imagination

04 Jul 2012

Stunning colours captured from 120 million year old fossils using cutting edge technology have gone on show.

Pigments from ancient fossils are on show at the Exhibition
Pigments from ancient fossils are on show at the Exhibition

University of Manchester palaeontologists and geochemists are presenting their research at the Royal Society’s annual Summer Science Exhibition.

The exhibit, Palimpsests, Palaeontology and Particle Physics, features rare fossils including a 120 million year old bird and chemical images of prehistoric life extracted from the sands of time by using the most powerful light sources in the universe. The light source at the Stanford Synchrotron shines brighter than a million suns.

The research is the closest scientists have come to putting a finger on the pulse of these amazing fossils, which includes birds, fish, dinosaurs and a host of other creatures more than 100 million years old.

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see these ground-breaking images produced by the Manchester team who have worked at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource in California. Visitors to the exhibit will get a chance to see how a synchrotron works, with a scale model of the device

The exhibit, constructed by the Palaeontology Research Group at The University of Manchester, shows the results of a collision between particle physics and palaeontology by exploring what happens when scientists shed intense x-ray light on these very ancient fossil remains.

From the writings of Archimedes to prehistoric traces of soft tissues, and from the remains of Archaeopteryx to Confuciusornis, the University of Manchester scientists are unlocking fossilized chemical ghosts. What they learn will undoubtedly yield benefits to our understanding of Earth processes, from the past and present, but also the future.

Dr Phil Manning and Dr Roy Wogelius work with their team in collaboration with the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) in the USA and the Diamond Synchrotron in the UK on analysing fossils using synchrotron radiation.

Dr Manning said: “This is a splendid opportunity for the Manchester team to show the world our cutting-edge research.

“Our understanding of the biology and preservation of ancient life is being dramatically enhanced using the synchrotron-based imaging techniques. The research also clearly demonstrates the relevance of fossil research in the 21st Century.

“By understanding the burial of past organic matter, we might better predict what happens when our own species buries waste in the ground for future generations to deal with”.

The scientists will be on hand at the exhibition which runs from 3 July to 8 July.

Notes for editors

Daniel Cochlin
Media Relations Officer
The University of Manchester
0161 275 8387

Nicola Kane
Press and Public Relations
The Royal Society, London
Tel: 020 7451 2508

1.    A press preview will take place between 3pm – 5pm on Monday 2 July. Please contact the Royal Society press office to make arrangements to attend this.

2.    Images available on request.

3.    General info:  The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition showcases cutting edge research in science and engineering from across the UK. It is held annually at the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science. Follow the Summer Science Exhibition on Twitter at using the hashtag #SSE2012.

4.    Exhibition opening times:  The Exhibition is located in the Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5 AG and takes place from Tuesday 2 July to Sunday 8 July 2012. Open Tuesday 3 July 10am – 9pm, Wednesday 4 July – Thursday 5 July 10am – 5pm, Friday 6 July 10am – 9pm, Saturday 7 July 10am – 9pm, Sunday 8 July 10am – 6pm.  The event is FREE and open to the public.  Further information can be found at: 

5.    The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship of many of the world’s most distinguished scientists drawn from all areas of science, engineering, and medicine. The Society’s fundamental purpose, as it has been since its foundation in 1660, is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

The Society’s strategic priorities emphasise its commitment to the highest quality science, to curiosity-driven research, and to the development and use of science for the benefit of society. These priorities are:

1.    Promoting science and its benefits
2.    Recognising excellence in science
3.    Supporting outstanding science
4.    Providing scientific advice for policy
5.    Fostering international and global cooperation
6.    Education and public engagement

For further information on the Royal Society please visit Follow the Royal Society on Twitter at or on Facebook at