Hands on science

 

I’ve been returning to my roots lately, getting out and about talking about dinosaurs, and it’s brought back to me the importance of one-on-one, face-to-face communication of ideas.

In late September I went along with a couple of event producers from RiAus to the small Victorian seaside town of Inverloch. We went there as part of our Free Range Science program, taking science to regional communities across Victoria.  In this particular case, the focus was the local sites on the sea platforms where the fossils of dinosaurs and other creatures have been found.

I’ve been aware of these very important sites since excavations started in the area in the early 1990s – even earlier if you take into account that this is where the first Australian dinosaur fossil was found in 1903.  But it’s really only been in the last couple of decades that systematic excavations there have unearthed a wealth of dinosaurs and other creatures that lived alongside them some 115 million years ago. More important than the dinosaurs from these sites, this is the richest area for fossils of mammals that lived at that time.

It was a very different world back when these stony fragments were the flesh and blood of living creatures. The whole of Australia was so far south, that this area was below the Antarctic Circle. Australia was still attached to Antarctica, a separation that was underway but would not be complete for another 70 million years. It was a very harsh place to live with long cold winters featuring a couple of months of perpetual darkness.

The evidence for these creatures, and that environment, abound below the sea cliffs of Inverloch. Here you can read the past if you only know the language of the rocks. Interpreting those rocks and fossils for the hundreds of people that came along for a look was a special and privileged role I got to play all weekend. For me it was the sheer delight on the faces of the children that made it all worthwhile. One young lad, no more than eight years old, actually found a small fleck of dinosaur bone while we were there and beamed with pride for the rest of the day. Another family who stumbled upon us couldn’t have been more grateful that finally there was someone on hand to explain where the fossils were and what they meant. They were regular visitors to the area and knew that dinosaurs had been found there but were not equipped to read the rocks and explore that story by themselves.

As I’ve said before, science is about revealing the unseen, creating pictures of worlds beyond our perception. The very small, the very large, the play over millions of years, the subatomic events that are over in an instant; these and more are the hidden domains of science.  And, if science is about revealing these hidden worlds, science communication is about sharing them with others.

A pragmatist may ask: why bother?  Viewed from a limited perspective, what was gained by talking to people about a long-lost world revealed in a sea cliff? How could this abstract puddle of knowledge possibly offer any contribution to our own future or well-being?

The answer was in the beaming smile of the eight-year-old palaeontologist finding his first dinosaur bone or the dozens of others scrambling over the beach looking for more. These are the minds of tomorrow and it’s never too early to inspire them with the stories and achievements of science.  Perhaps that young lad will go on to study science and make some significant contribution to the future of humanity. But more likely he will live out the rest of his life slightly different from his colleagues. Different because one day, while he was a boy, he walked with dinosaurs and has the bone to prove it.

I think the adults took away another valuable idea: the intransigence and insignificance of human achievement in the face of the vast swaths of time that have unfolded between the dinosaurs and us. Several times I had the conversation that the world we have built around us, the economies and societies that seem to be at the centre of everything we do, are extremely recent fabrications that can be erased with ease and minimal consequence to the future of the planet. The dinosaurs, whose fossilised bones we were handing around, ruled the Earth for 160 million years and, when they were taken out, it was not by their own hand or over-exploitation of the Earth’s resources.  Civilisations and societies date back no more than 10,000 years and in that short time we have pushed our population and the planet’s resources to breaking point.  We should be uneasy about what the next 1000 years will look like, but we could not possibly contrive to survive for the next 159,999,990 years to create a dynasty equal to that of the dinosaurs.

In one weekend on the wind-swept coast of Victoria, we got to put the world into a new perspective for some people. That, along with injecting the thrill of finding fossils into many children, made the whole effort a success.

Dr Paul Willis is the Director of RiAus (Royal Institute of Australia)

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