While I was waiting for the courier to deliver the mysterious object I set up my stereo reflected light microscope and my micro-manipulator stage and checked them out. It also gave me a chance to give my hands some practice with the controls. Though using a micro-manipulator is somewhat like riding a bicycle, it is best to make sure your muscles have not forgotten the finer points, wobbling is not good when handling fragile items. So I ripped off a small piece of my daily newspaper and used the tools to cut out some full stops and then some commas, which are trickier.
The courier arrived later in the morning with a very small, light but well packaged parcel. On stripping away all the bubble wrap all I was left with was a very small vial of coloured flakes. Perhaps this was some small detail of a painting, but why had they not sent the rest. Time to give them a call and insist on some background.
Neither the Art History or Archaeology Departments recognised the name of the person who had called me. Eventually I had to talk to the main switchboard who put me through to the Palaeontology Department, so this was some kind of fossil, somewhat outside my normal field.
It took me a while to convince Doctor Nadel that she did need to provide some extra information about the object. With such small fragments I would have to manipulate them in a viscous suspending liquid that I could solidify once complete. There are various options from the really old fashioned Canada Balsam which would mean working on heated stage, through epoxy resins which could be hardened as a whole with a catalyst upto the latest photopolymer resins which can be hardened in minute spots using a UV laser. The problem being that not all the liquids are suitable for all materials.
Finally she consented to tell me that I was working on what they thought was the wings of the the earliest butterfly ever found, encased in amber. An attempt had been made to extract DNA from the body but due to a misunderstanding the research student had dissolved the whole lump of amber rather than drill through to the body. The body had been salvaged but the wings had fallen to pieces. As the wings had been folded shut in the amber they had no idea what the pattern on the upper surface looked like and they hoped that I could help them.
So I am sitting here hour after hour, peering down my microscope putting together an over 65 million year old jigsaw puzzle, and I am doing it by looking at the back of the pieces! The colours on the other side are amazing, but very complex so it is actually easier to look at the simple pattern of veins on the back. Only when I am finished will I be able to turn the resin block over and see something not viewed since dinosaurs ruled the earth.