Wardlaw studies catastrophes — long ago planetwide bouts of destruction — with the hope that if we understand what went wrong a few hundred million years ago, we can prepare for a future catastrophic event. Wardlaw doesn’t want to stop working, and he can’t understand why he’s locked out of work by what he sees as a catastrophe of Congress’s own making.
“When that’s all they do day-to-day, you’d think they could accomplish something in a day. Their time scale is in the here and now. Ours isn’t,” he said. “It’s the inaction that’s frustrating and disappointing.”
Part of his disconnect with the way political Washington works comes from his own particular relationship with time. On non-trash days, he says, he usually gets to the office from his Herndon area home between 6:38 and 6:45 a.m. Once there, accompanied by tens of thousands of mini-fish fossils and a velvet Elvis on the wall, he uses his long days to try to put more precise time stamps on hundreds of millions of years of the Earth’s history.
One of the key things to know about Bruce Wardlaw — other than that he gravitates toward black jeans at work, black jerseys when coaching his girls’ basketball team and that he has AC/DC’s “Back in Black” as his ring tone — is that he doesn’t do dinosaurs. He does micro-fossils, particularly conodonts, a primitive little fish that had teeth good for grasping and grinding food, but essentially no jaw. They were four centimeters long.
“As you get larger in size, there are fewer individuals. Dinosaurs are pretty rare,” Wardlaw said. But conodonts — “they were everywhere.”
The little fish thrived starting 550 million years ago and into the middle of the Mesozoic Era, which ended 65 million years before Monday’s midnight deadline for passing a continuing resolution to fund government operations. Turns out that was a good stretch for studying very tough times on planet Earth, and the conodont is an excellent guide. Finding conodonts can be rather involved. When he’s not locked out of the building, Wardlaw can put big chunks of rock into his lab’s chipmunk crusher to break them up and then soak them in a plastic dish tub filled with what amounts to very strong vinegar.
The pieces are doused with other, more potent chemicals and run through a powerful magnet to sort out the chaff from potential conodonts. Then he puts sand-grain-size pieces under a microscope to search for his old friends.
Although he’s become quite fond of them, it’s not a fanciful exercise. The presence, and color, of the micro-fish remains is an important piece of intelligence.