College of LAS « Illinois

Faculty Focus

Father (Deep) Time

More than 50 years after arriving at Illinois, Tom Phillips is still unlocking the secrets of ancient Earth.

Tom Phillips

What’s a half-century to a paleobotanist? It’s the blink of an eye. Since Tom Phillips arrived at Illinois in 1961, maybe a few centimeters of peat formed in the swamps, and that’s it. When you spend your career looking back 300 million years, anything that happened since the Eisenhower Administration barely scratches the surface of history—and maybe that’s why Phillips feels like he’s still got so much to do.

Every day, barring wintry weather, Phillips, professor emeritus of plant biology, marches with armfuls of books and field samples to his laboratory in the basement of Morrill Hall. On one wall is a proud array of photos of former students, several of whom have become foremost experts in the field of paleobotany, after Phillips himself.

The rest of the lab is literally packed with hundreds of binders of data, and thousands of carefully processed samples of ancient coal balls. These coal balls, formed under certain conditions during the Great Coal Age, are the bane of coal miners (they can be such a nuisance that they shut down coal mines), but they’ve fueled Phillips’s entire career.

He remembers the first time he heard of them. He was an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, not far from where he was raised. He signed up for a strange-sounding course called paleobotany, and one day the professor told them how coal balls contained plants from the Pennsylvanian Age.

The statement grabbed Phillips’s imagination by the collar. Incredulous, he approached the professor after class to ask if he had heard the man correctly.

“And he said, ‘Well, yes, so far as I know the plant is still there,’” Phillips recalls. “I thought, ‘My goodness, if you have the anatomy of the plant, we’re going back about 300 million years in time!’”

That was some 60 years ago, and the rest of the story can be found everywhere you look: In his 53-year career at Illinois, in his election to the National Academy of Sciences, and in what BBC once called his Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque barn built to accommodate his vast collection of coal balls. He has 40,000 of them, ranging in size from a pea to a barrel, hauled out of the ground from about 80 coal seams around the world. They are the largest such collection anywhere.

Coal balls were formed between 300 million and 320 million years ago, when North America, Europe, and Asia were one continent, covered with vast swamps and tropical ferns. As plants were covered with debris, locally they would become embedded by calcium carbonate (calcite), resulting in coal balls.

Today, if you cut one open with a saw, you can find preserved roots, stems, and leaves from a time before dinosaurs. Some of these plants, he once said, appear so perfectly preserved that it seems you could add water and they would come back to life.

One day recently, Phillips led a visitor through his laboratory. Inside was an array of coal balls, cut open like cantaloupes and cut into slices. With a practiced eye, he showed how one of these slices, held up to the light, can provide a record of not only plants and coal, but also the environment. In 1975, his research made the cover of Science magazine when he noticed a gap of certain types of plants in his collection during a time period about 300 million years ago. He had discovered a mass extinction.

“He’s one of the most prominent paleobotanists in the world,” says Feng Sheng Hu, head of the Department of Plant Biology at Illinois, of Phillips. “In the world of paleoscience, we have shallow time people, who might study periods from 10,000 to 2 million years ago, and we have deep time people. He is like the deep time person.”

Hu is in the process of creating a lectureship named after Phillips, in recognition of his contributions to paleoscience and teaching. With funding, Hu envisions bringing a prominent expert to campus once or twice a year to help highlight the programs here.

Phillips was one of the major reasons Illinois became known in the 20th century as perhaps the top school in the country for paleobotany, Hu says. He adds that LAS programs recently have expanded on that reputation and experienced a regrowth in paleosciences, with numerous faculty and students in animal and plant biology, geology, anthropology, atmospheric science, statistics, and the Illinois Geology Survey studying “paleorecords” in the context of global change.

“Some of the very best paleobotanists either trained here or were students of alumni,” he says. “Some of the very best in the country went to top-notch universities, such as Cornell, Ohio State, and Indiana University, and the Smithsonian Institute, and Tom of course had a lot to do with that. He is really an incredible mentor.”

coal ball

Phillips is in his 80s now, and he’s conceded that he will no longer be out scrambling among the rocks and mines for more coal balls. But with much of his collection yet to be examined, Phillips figures he has enough to keep him busy for a while longer.

Currently, he’s working with colleagues on a book to be published by the Smithsonian Institution about what happens to a plant from the time it dies to when it’s discovered millions of years later as a fossil. He’s also working with the Illinois Geological Survey, a longtime partner on his research, to create a digital archive of his coal ball samples (called peels for the way that they’re lifted from the coal ball surface) to ensure that they remain accessible and useful.

Scott Elrick, a geologist at the Illinois Geological Survey who is digitizing images of the peels with Phillips, estimates that there are at least a quarter-million peels to archive, though nobody has an exact count. (Elrick is also co-authoring Phillips’s upcoming book along with Bill DiMichele, a former student of Phillips who now works at the Smithsonian Institute as a widely respected paleoscientist.) Twice a week for the past three years, Elrick gets on instant chat with Phillips through their office Macs, and they go through peels together.

“You just feel like your IQ is 1,000 points higher when you’re talking to him,” Elrick says. “He’s a force amplifier, a learning amplifier, and just being with him makes you want to learn more.” That observation seems to be a theme among those who know Phillips. Karl Niklas, a prominent professor of botany at Cornell University and leading expert on paleobiochemistry who studied under Phillips, says he considers Phillips his mentor and “academic father,” who allowed him and others freedom to explore their own ideas.

“The atmosphere he created was creative and unique,” Niklas recalls. “So many professors then and now make their students into rubber stamps of themselves. Dr. Phillips never did. He enjoyed seeing us walk along our individual pathways as he was creating his own important contributions to science.... He was kind to me in every possible way.”

Phillips, after all, knows how your experience as a student affects your entire career. He was a graduate student at Washington University when a professor from Illinois invited Phillips for a four-day visit where he was free to pore over the University’s coal ball collection in the bowels of the Natural History Building. It was, he recalls happily, “like going to the grocery store.”

Later, he took the first opportunity he had to come back to Illinois. He increased U of I’s collection of coal balls tenfold—enough, he figures, to last several lifetimes of research. As he sees it, he’s working on his second.

The Phillips Lecture in Paleobotany

The Department of Plant Biology has established a lectureship in recognition of Tom Phillips’s contributions to paleobotany and teaching. The first lecture will be on October 30, 2014, featuring Andrew Knoll, Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University.

For more information regarding the lectureship, or how your gift can help, please contact Feng Sheng Hu, department head, at fshu@life.illinois.edu.

By Dave Evensen
Spring 2014