In my previous post, I discussed how virtual fossils are potentially a great tool for getting people interested in palaeontology. Moreover, they are made routinely by some scientists as part of their research, and thus may already be available for use. Viewing this material on a computer is a nice way of looking at fossils in 3-D, and displays can even be projected onto large screens in red-green anaglyph:
This isn’t the only way of using virtual fossils for science communication, however. You see, computer models (when in the correct format) can be used as a basis for printing real, three-dimensional, physical objects that you can literally hold in your hand. This is done through 3-D printing, where objects are created by laying down successive layers. These machines can print in a range of colours and materials, including plastic, metal and resin, and models can be larger or smaller than life-size. The end result is a highly accurate model of a fossil, as shown in this video about 3-D printing a dinosaur skull:
This website shows a few more examples for fossil vertebrates, produced by the University of Texas. There are also several companies that will create a 3-D print of any computer model you give them. Even better news is that 3-D printers are becoming increasingly cheap and available, and some are now being made for domestic use. So, one day soon, you might be able to print a personalized virtual fossil – all in the comfort of your own home!
Drum roll, please. The second part of the resource I’m creating for public engagement in palaeontology will consist of…you guessed it, 3-D prints of fossils. The third and final part will be covered in my next post.