Professor Xu Xing is a bit of an enigma. The world-famous paleontologist has contributed to naming no less than 27 dinosaur species (including the famous Microraptor, Gigantoraptor and the Guanlong genus), has won awards from the Chinese National Excellent Youth Fund and the National 100 Excellent Ph.D. Dissertations, and has had his papers published in globally renowned journals such as Nature – all before the age of 40. Yet the Xinjiang native credits his best discoveries to sheer luck.
“Any professional paleontologist will say how lucky I am. I have named many dinosaurs, and a normal paleontologist may never make a single discovery of that importance in his entire career,” explains Xu with a shy smile.
Sure enough, some of his discoveries seemed to have been astronomically fortuitous. He found and collected the first set of bones from Microraptor on the final day of a long digging season at Liaoning after being presented with the fossils by a local farmer. His discovery of Gigantoraptor was even more unexpected – he stumbled across the fossil when pretending to dig during the filming of a CCTV documentary and would later find another Sauropod when filming for the Japanese channel KTV.
“I have been very lucky with all these discoveries, but I also worked harder than most other people. When I was younger, I slept only a few hours every day for years,” Xu says.
Since English is the primary language for internationally respected research papers, Xu believes it’s essential that Chinese scientists spend some time in Europe or the US (where he worked for two years at the American Museum of Natural History in New York). A key factor in his meteoric rise to the top of his field was his effort to correspond with other paleontologists to come to grips with the ideas, methods and training that formed the cutting edge of his discipline.
Which is not to say that he never tires of the endless conferences, symposiums and a grueling digging season, though. When asked what motivates him to continue in the field, Xu’s answer is that his relationship with paleontology is comparable to an old marriage: “If you work on anything, including paleontology, for a long time, you will love it.”
Moreover, he’s had some trouble with the authorities over the years, particularly with getting a license to excavate. Another problem is unlicensed fossil hunters. “The good thing is that because there are so many [unlicensed fossil-hunters], our chances of finding good fossils increase. But they don’t have much knowledge or good training – in the excavation, they damage the fossils.”
Aside from his responsibilities as an academic, Xu is also passionate about bringing his field into the realms of popular science, and gets very animated when talking about paleontology’s ability to make people interested in science: “It fulfills the curiosity of human beings. People want to understand their surroundings and the life forms and planet that surround them,” he says. He loves the idea that his dinosaurs might inspire kids to learn a little bit more about nature.
With all these commitments, however, the professor finds it difficult to get a find a good work-family balance. “I try to work as little as possible in the field and spend more time with my family, but I have a lot of projects like expeditions in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Shandong, so sometimes it’s hard to coordinate,” he says. “I try my best and often I skip a lot of meetings and symposiums,” says the father of two sons, Xu Yihang (5) and Xu Yizhou (10). This scientist also enjoys running in the park, cycling, playing badminton and watching cartoons with his kids.
Neither of his young progeny has yet to show any inkling of wanting to follow in their father’s footsteps, though Xu doesn’t mind either way. He is, however, planning on taking his eldest son on one of his expeditions soon – if the boy has any of his father’s good fortune, he may well make the next great scientific breakthrough. Ellis Pugh