Last weekend, for those of you who don’t already know, was the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. This festival is a celebration of geology and palaeontology in the UK (and to some extent abroad). Lyme Regis, in Dorset, is the perfect location for a festival like this because it is the home of Mary Anning – one of the first citizen scientists (or citizen geologists more specifically). Mary came from a poor background and, when her father died, it fell to her and her brother Joseph (the only surviving children from 10 born to their parents, Richard and Mary) to support themselves and their mother. Mary collected many fossils washed from the cliffs in Lyme Bay and made some of the most astonishing discoveries of the period – notably early Ichthyosaur, Plesiosaur and Pterodactyl skeletons. Mary herself, however, had little education and the description and identification of these fossils was handed over to the eminent (male) Victorian scientists of the time, including William Buckland, Henry de la Beche and William Conybeare. Because of her background, education and sex, Mary wasn’t credited with the discoveries of any new species’. She did have, however, a vast knowledge of geology and anatomy from her experience collecting the fossils, but even with that knowledge she was never considered a true Victorian scientist.
The idea of a citizen scientist seems like a new one to us, with initiatives such as OPAL ( the OPen Air Laboratory) and the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch using the observations of ordinary folk to assist in discoveries about the natural world, but actually the idea is an old one with a new name (and perhaps, better organisation). The UK is fairly unusual in the number of amateur societies that exist to study organisms that may be – to most people – fairly obscure. Are you really enchanted by earthworms? Then the Earthworm Society of Britain is for you. Mad about mushrooms and toadstools? Try the Dorset Fungus Group. But how do you get people interested in these rather specific areas of science in the first place? Well that brings me back to the value of a Fossil Festival.
At the Fossil Festival, I (as a part of the University of Plymouth) helped with running an activity called the ‘Dinosaur Runway’ – basically it does what it says on the tin, we got children to put on a pair of boots with ‘dino-shaped-tracks’ on the bottom, and walk down the runway. Why? Because it’s fun (and it really is – you should try it next year). But also because it tells a story about science. This one activity represents several scientific ideas. The first is that dinosaurs leave behind trace fossils (teeth scars on bones, faeces, footprints, etc), that can tell us about the dinosaur itself. One of my favourite is the debate as to whether dinosaurs cared for their young after they laid the eggs and footprints can tell us much about this – if they had cared for their young then surely the footprints would show adults walking with young dinosaurs (although I always think of what a footprint trace from humans in central London would show, to demonstrate how interpretations can be influenced). Additionally, you can tell a lot about how dinosaurs moved by their tracks; were they upright, walking on two legs (bipedal), did they walk on all four legs (quadrupedal) or was it a mixture of the two? So everyone who tried our dino runway, hopefully got an idea of what fossilised footprints represent – some of them had a debate about it – which is the central idea.
The next idea that this activity represents, is the involvement of maths in science. Yes, you could get paint everywhere and make a huge footprinty mess, but without the maths (or trigonometry in the case) you couldn’t work out which dinosaur you represented. By measuring the pace length of the dinosaur and jimmying around with trigonometry we could calculate a rough ‘dino hip height’ for the person doing the experiment. Which then correlated to a certain species – giving you your dino identity. If your footprints weren’t clear enough, or there weren’t enough of them, the calculations couldn’t be done; leaving your dinosaur identity a mystery – as is actually the case with many dinosaur tracks, they are simply unidentified because there is not enough information. So maths can solve mysteries, but a lack of information will confound your ability to make an identification.
The third idea is that of repetition of an experiment. Because our activity was fun and we catered for a variety of ages of children we were popular at the Fossil Festival, meaning we usually had a queue. That meant that our ‘dino’s in waiting’ got to see the experiment done over and over again – always in the same way. This has value for someone who in school may only have the opportunity to see an experiment done once (even if lots of people are doing it together) as it highlights how much of scientific investigation can be repetition. And how important it is to be able to reproduce your results. If you took a measured stride along our runway and were identified as Deinonychus, then went back and took the same measured stride, you would be identified as Deinonychus again. Repetition and replicability.
At the end though, I think I come back to the idea of it being fun because it is the most important. OK so the dino runway could probably have been more scientifically accurate – and the hip measurements were not exact, but rather fell within a dinosaur species ‘catchment’; but if you focus on those small points you miss the bigger picture – because our activity was fun it could inspire people to go out and try searching for footprints or trace fossils themselves. Or even just trying to interpret something they see without waiting for an explanation first. Nothing we did was wrong, it could just have been more detailed, but sometimes I think (as long as the detail is there for those who want it), a little bit of paint splattered fun is just what science needs.
After all, Mary Anning may have been a citizen scientist to pay the bills in the early 1800s, but I bet she still enjoyed it and that’s how citizen scientists are made – a bit of encouragement, a bit of fun and a lot of curiosity. I think we all have that in us.
So go on – walk like a citizen scientist.
For more information on dinosaur track interpretation see:
(if you know of any other good papers about this then please mention them!)