Across the globe, the brightest synchrotron in Europe—the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France—employs a staff paleontologist, Paul Tafforeau. He works with physicists to adapt the beamlines to image the hidden internal structures of fossils at incredible resolutions. Tafforeau has used the X-ray light to penetrate hundreds of chunks of opaque amber—essentially, rocks—to resolve 100-million year old fossil beetles, ants, wasps, and other insects trapped inside. The insect scans are then enlarged to palm-size and rendered into ivory plastic models using 3-D printers. Researchers can manipulate and analyze the bugs with far greater sensitivity than an onscreen 3D model. [Click to watch an animation of the amber-scanning process.
A newly discovered dragonfly was even named after the head of imaging at the Grenoble facility, José Baruchel. "It's the first species that was dedicated to a synchrotron physicist," said Tafforeau.