Don's Diary

April 24, 1998

Monday

The most recent contribution of the Natural History Museum to helping the public understand science is a Fossil Roadshow to be broadcast on Friday and Saturday. This is supposed to be a kind of Extremely Antiques Roadshow, presenting our experts hunched over fossil objects brought in by members of the public - a chance at last to show our amiable erudition to a television audience. One or two of my colleagues are already contemplating buying new tweed jackets. In the case of one of them this is a remarkable innovation, because he last bought one in 1953. We are thinking of curating his old one.

Tuesday

No time to think about the Fossil Roadshow today - a review deadline looms. Once more I puzzle over the problems of writing a review of a book I don't like without sounding peevish. The book is about the evolution of life in the Cambrian Period, which all happened more than 500 million years ago. It will seem extraordinary to the lay reader that events so far in the past can still stir up violent passions today. Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University has his version of ancient history, which is very different from the one Stephen Jay Gould espoused some years ago in his book Wonderful Life. My views coincide more or less with those of Professor Conway Morris, but what interests me is why he is so violently opposed to Gould, when ten years ago their views were more or less equivalent. Anyone who thought bile was confined to the boardroom knows nothing about academic life. Intelligent people paid from the public purse have the leisure to be vicious with style. But what tone to adopt in my review? The cursor on the word processor blinks for hours without making progress, and I wonder if the pre-electronic equivalent of this phenomenon was a dozen screwed-up balls of paper tossed into the corner of the office.

Wednesday

A colleague has been seen in a spectacular new Harris tweed jacket. There are suspicions that he is trying to hog the roadshow. Neale Monks has a loud waistcoat, but then young post-docs are allowed to be a little flamboyant. The review seems to have written itself, and I am worried that in trying to identify the symptoms of academic irritability I may have acquired the disease.

Thursday

It is time for a rehearsal for the roadshow. Very nice BBC people make us do screen tests. Under the tail of the diplodocus that bestrides our wonderful entrance hall, tables are erected where we will talk to camera - explaining the specimens brought to us. Most of us hope to look distinguished in a Richard Dawkins kind of way, and there is a sneaking satisfaction that at last the humble ammonite, fern or clam will get his day. Up to now, only Angela Milner's dinosaurs or Chris Stringer's hominids seem to have cut the televisual mustard. Of course, I think that my trilobites (to mix zoological metaphors) are the bee's knees. There is a good chance that a visitor will bring in an interesting one because amateur fossil hunters are keen on these ancient arthropods. The presenters are at the rehearsal too. Peter Snow is tall and avuncular. Nobody from the museum has the courage to ask him if he has brought his Swingometer.

Friday

The big day. But horrors! Checks are not allowed because they cause a shimmering effect on camera. The weavers of the Isle of Harris have laboured in vain. At 10am visitors trickle in carrying paper bags or shoe boxes containing their treasures. My first customer is a small girl with a beautiful Cambrian trilobite from Morocco. I ask her if she would like to have her best fossil appear on television, but she runs away holding her mother's hand, her 15 minutes of fame inviolate. My botanical friend at the next table has a whole batch of fossil leaves from the Island of Spitsbergen, and it transpires that the owners of the leaves were in the high Arctic only a year or two after me. That is one of the entrancing things about an event like this - unexpected connections emerge. By midday the museum is crowded with punters. There are howls of delight as a really spectacular sea-lily is unwrapped. There are also disappointments. One mother has brought a bag of odd-shaped flints - one of them looks for all the world like a pigeon on a perch. I have to explain that pigeons on perches are not likely fossils. A collector from Dorset with a black, frizzy halo of hair is determined that his fossil lobster should make it as a television star. He reappears every hour or so waving his booty (but doesn't get on TV). I can hear Peter Snow enthusing over a dinosaur fragment. There has been some exciting amber bearing the exquisite remains of rare insects. At last, I inspect a fine Devonian trilobite from Bolivia with a media-friendly owner and my favourite fossils can be admired by the nation. A 400-million-year wait for a television appearance. Could a fossil ask for more?

Richard Fortey Senior palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum. His latest book, Life: an Unauthorised Biography, has just been published in paperback by Flamingo.

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