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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A "missing link" has been found

According to newspapers all around the world, a new 47-million year old fossil is now described in full. It is likely this is one of the ancestors of both apes and humans in evolutionary history. This specimen has been given the name Ida.

As we can see from the image of the fossil, it has humanoid features, yet a long ape-like tail. Thanks to some extremely lucky fossilization, a lot of tissue was preserved and even its last meal, this was a herbivore.

A team of scientists, led by Jørn Hurum, of the University of Oslo Natural History Museum, have spent the last couple of years examining this fossil. The findings were released today, with much pomp and circumstance. This contrary to the way scientific findings are usually announced, silently in some journal somewhere out of sight of the layman.

I'm not going to comment too much about the science of it all because most of what goes on in a biological journal is way above my head. Here I am just a layperson like everyone else. (I hope Marit can comment some more on the creature itself later.) Instead I am going to comment on what struck me when I saw the newspaper articles about this, and clicked on through to the webpage about Ida.

Yes, that's right. A webpage about Ida. My first thought when I saw that, full of flash and videos and Facebook links, was 'This doesn't look like an ordinary scientific announcement.' In fact it was so unusual to see it presented like that that first I started to wonder if this all was very overstated. Having been jaded by advertisements before, I often apply the rule that the more flashy the advertisement, the duller the product itself. Scientific journals so far have been grounded in the principle that the truth does not need special effects to be attractive. They are boring and do not get much circulation outside their nearby peers.

I think this way is wonderful. We need some 'Celebrity' scientists and 'Rock concert' discoveries again and some major findings and breakthroughs to capture everyone's attentions. And, while they might be adequate for the lab rat community, a journal entry really does not parley anything to me, the layperson. Press releases, shows, newspaper articles, fancy webpages, they're great! I'm more of a physics person myself, but this find so far has made me think about biology again! And that's great!

Right now a large part of the world does not care about, or care for, Science (Capital S.) Here on this blog though, we do. And I love this approach. I hope more scientific teams take note of this approach and try to make the information a bit more accessible to me, the layperson. Sure, there are museums but still as Science-happy that we are, we don't visit them often. We do however visit the Internet and Twitter and Facebook often. And that gets the word around.

Sure, you run the risk of making a big fuss out of what might still turn out to be a dud. In Science you always do. And we've found lots of missing links before. And there will be more. Every fossil found just creates two more that are missing. I am not here to talk about the science of it, I leave the analyzing of it to proper biologists. I comment on the approach, the announcement, the hype. "Any pop band is doing the same thing, any athlete is doing the same,” Jørn Hurum told the New York Times “We have to start thinking the same way in science.” I couldn't agree more.

You can read more about Ida at http://www.revealingthelink.com/
There will be a television show about her, made by David Attenborough, next week on BBC, NRK, and it will likely spread around on the Internet really fast afterward.
On June 5, she will be on display at the Museum of Natural History in Oslo. Marit and I will go there and report.

1 comment:

  1. A big hooray for Hurum! I totally agree with his view on popularizing scientific discoveries. Reading the article made me go YEY! in my head. I loved the official web page, especially the interactive map showcasing the features that make this fossil so special. They should make kids check it out as compulsory homework.