A growing drumbeat in science these days involves the importance of communication: How can the people who do the work that is changing our world, and our understanding of it, get their message out to the public?
Neil Shubin, a University of Chicago paleontologist and anatomist, is an excellent role model in this regard. Shubin was part of the team that in 2006 discovered Tiktaalik roseae, a so-called “fishapod” that might have been one of the first vertebrates to crawl out of the water onto dry land. He wrote a best-selling 2008 book, Your Inner Fish, about what Tiktaalik can tell us about evolution.
Now, Shubin has transformed the message of that book into a three-part series that begins airing on PBS at 9 p.m. CDT on April 9. Not only that, but he appeared on Thursday at a Science on the Screen event at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts on the U. of C. campus in Hyde Park to talk about Your Inner Fish. Science on the Screen is an occasional series the U. of C. sponsors that showcases its world-class scientists talking about feature and documentary films that deal with various aspects of science.
Shubin’s story is pretty thrilling. He and his colleagues spent four summers over six years searching in an exposed layer of rock in the Arctic that dates from the Devonian period, searching for fossils that could show how fish managed to adapt body parts that allowed them to walk out onto land. The researchers could only work during the few snow-free months of the summer, and they had to carry guns, because polar bears were a very real threat. Shubin told the Science on the Screen audience that his group found polar bear tracks in their camp when they got up in the morning.
A sizable chunk of the audience on Thursday was composed of children — I brought my younger daughter, a high school student. One of the fascinating bits we heard in Your Inner Fish is that Tiktaalik shared the basic limb structure (coming down from the shoulder, say) of “big bone, two bones, lots of little bones, digits” that various land vertebrates have diversified into wings, legs that end in paws and, in the case of primates, arms that end in hands.
The Pew Research Center recently found that about one-third of Americans reject the truth of evolution, often on religious grounds: The Bible says God created the earth in six days. Or, they buy the argument that evolution is just a theory about how the world began, of equal weight with creationism, say. One of the children in the audience asked Shubin how he feels about that. He said that what he likes about Your Inner Fish is that it presents evidence for evolution, and that evidence has the power to convince open-minded people of scientific truth.
Not every scientist has Shubin’s charisma — he is a lot of fun to watch in Your Inner Fish — but as I said above, he’s a great role model. The two other segments in the series are Your Inner Reptile and Your Inner Monkey, scheduled to air on April 16 and April 23. The series is part of Think Wednesday, a three-hour block of programming on nature, science and technology PBS began in January.