Saturday, 28 November 2009

My love affair with the Natural History Museum

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The Natural History Museum stands proudly on Cromwell Road in London, a monument to great Victorian ideals and grandeur. It was built by men of god whose ambition was to celebrate creation and to share the glory of god with the great British public - it was in essence a cathedral to creation. The NHM now stands as a testament to scientific endeavor and with more than 300 scientists working in subjects across the five departments of Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Zoology and Palaeontology, it continues as one of the worlds largest and leading public academic institutions.


My eye-straining endeavor

The Natural History Museum is home to a staggering 70 million items - all of which have been meticulously catalogued by some of the most dedicated and often eccentric personalities that you could ever hope to meet. Much of my postgraduate work was carried out in the presence of these great men and women, undergoing my research in the department of Palaeontology. My research focused on probably the least glamorous, and yet the most useful, area of palaeontology - microfossils. Microfossils are the foundation of the oil industry - crucial to biostratigraphy (the dating of rocks). Extremely abundant, widespread, and quick to appear and disappear from the geological record, they are the ideal index fossils. I know people who can tell you the age of a rock, and where in the world it is from, just by taking a quick glance of its microfossils. They also provide us with a peek back through time - helping us to discover environmental changes across millions of years.


With a sense of a higher academic purpose, and motivated by the grandiosity of my surroundings, I would spend hour after hour gazing down the microscope, peering into a lost world of miniature prehistoric lifeforms. My particular expertise was in fossil algae, and while it may not have been a subject I could regale people with down the pub, it was my little corner of science. The highlight of my eye-straining endeavor was discovering a new species of Prasinophyte algae - Dictyotidium retiulatum porospora. And if you really want to learn more about that you can see the slides from one of my presentations here.


Distractions

I found it very easy to be distracted at the Natural History Museum - when the microscope became too much I would wonder over to the palaeobotany collection (fossil plants) to help the curator, Dr Paul Davis, with his gargantuan task of resorting the vast collection and in transferring data from old dusty victorian name cards into a more useful, albeit less romantic, online database. The process of refining and updating records is a thankless task that continues infinitum, as do the tantalisingly endless corridors, rooms and towers which constantly beckoned me to explore.

When I had locked my microscope away for the night, and the doors to the Palaeobotany collection had been locked, my good friend Dr Aaron Hunter and I would venture into the main hall, into an eerily silent and dimly lit world of wonder. A far cry from the bustling thoroughfare that most people experience. It was these after-hour perusals of the exhibitions that spurred me into wanting to work in Wildlife Television. I had always dreamed of being an explorer and Sir David Attenborough himself was as much my hero as he was that of just about everyone else at the NHM. He has spent his life engaged in the challenge and adventure of filming the very treasures that this cathedral was created to celebrate.

It gave me immense pride that I was allowed to participate, in a very small way, in the scientific explorations of one of the worlds foremost and prestigious academic institutions and now I wanted to go out and explore, photograph and film the wonders of the world first hand.

I was recently honoured to be asked, along with my colleague Chris Howard, to speak at the Attenborough Studio, part of the new Darwin centre, about my adventures and experiences filming wildlife and traveling around the world. It felt like my home coming, going back to where my adventures had all started only 10 years ago. I love the Natural History Museum, it will always have a special place in my heart, alongside fossil algae.

2 comments:

  1. You sir, are an inconceivably lucky man.

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  2. It's nice to know that people can share a common dream! If this happened to me I think I would probably be in heaven! You extremely lucky person!

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