TN paleontologist cashes in on fossil fever with YouTube channel

Through his YouTube channel ‘Scientific Thamizhans’ and Facebook page ‘How I met the fossils’, evolutionary biologist Nirmal Rajah has taken it upon himself to educate children and adults on human evolution and various scientific phenomena, as he unearths and dusts off fossils.
Nirmal Rajah interacting with a few students on fossils; A few of the fossils collected by Nirmal
Nirmal Rajah interacting with a few students on fossils; A few of the fossils collected by Nirmal

Chennai

While the 1993 American science-fiction film Jurassic Park, which was set in a theme park that had cloned dinosaurs and prehistoric plants, sparked off the dreams to pursue paleontology (study of fossil animals and plants) among many of us, Nirmal Rajah is one of the very few who would have worked towards the passion. “I was fascinated by fossils when I watched Jurassic Park as a child in kindergarten, and watched the movie on a video cassette numerous times. It was a few years later at The American College in Madurai that I got to see a real fossil, and I knew I wanted to study more about fossils. Once I began studying zoology I began collecting fossils along with fellow students,” recalls 30-year-old Nirmal in a conversation with DT Next.

Having specialised in evolutionary biology, a field of biology that delves into the evolutionary processes, the expert has been collecting fossils for over a decade now. “People tend to associate paleontology with dinosaurs, but the subject traces plants and other animal fossils too. Every state in the country has several fossil sites, home to hundreds of fossils, that can point towards how the particular species has evolved over time. When I was new to collecting fossils, I was simply looking for different kinds, but now I try to examine how fossils changed over time periods – trying to understand what the environment was like millions of years ago,” elaborates Nirmal, who has unearthed over 1,000 specimens of fossils so far across Tamil Nadu and other regions.

During a 2015 dig for fossils at Ariyalur, about 300km south of Chennai, Nirmal, along with a fellow paleontologist, found fossils of sea creatures aged between 120 million years and 50 million years buried at the site. The findings allowed him to confirm that the land remained under sea millions of years ago. Among the fossils unearthed were also the bones of Titanosaurus (dinosaur with long neck and tail). While all these observations were chronicled through a documentary film in English,Unearthing the Treasures of Ariyalur, Nirmal realised that the knowledge wasn’t reaching the masses.

He also found through studies of rocks that most of those found in Chennai are many billions of years old, and the sea levels were much higher. “In our country, we have great paleontological resources, but there is a need for general public to know about them. It is a great injustice if one collects fossils and keeps them. That was when I decided to start a YouTube channel along with a colleague Prabhu, under the name of 'Scientific Thamizhans', to create videos in Tamil on human evolution and other science subjects. Our idea is to equip people in the state with information on fossils they may find around their region, through a language they’re comfortable with. There are a lot of misleading pseudoscience-based videos on YouTube, and it is important to counter misinformation with scientific content and break myths. I also host a series of videos from each of the fossil sites I visit for our 74,000 subscribers,” says Nirmal, who works at an archaeological centre in UAE’s Sharjah.

During his visits to Tamil Nadu once in every few months, he keeps himself busy hosting exhibitions across the state for students and science enthusiasts to touch, feel and learn about fossils. His Facebook page ‘How I met the fossils’ also serves similar purpose in narrating tales behind each of the fossils unearthed. With the growing penetration of internet in the country, it is a great time to inculcate scientific temper among people, especiallychildren, he says. “I plan to start a museum where children can learn about fossils and get a handsy knowledge of them. Since the subject involves study of chemistry, physics and biology,it would be great if the bones can inspire youngsters to take up science,” he remarks. 

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