The Universe Within and Tiktaalik, Neil Shubin at the Royal Institution

Universe WithinPeople who have a great passion for a subject are often the best speakers on it, and Neil Shubin’s enthusiasm for his work was obvious as he spoke earlier this evening at the Royal Institution. He’s a palaeontologist who believes that seeing history helps us see the present, and that deep time is connected to all life and the present.

He explained how palaeontologists can select the right place to look for the fossil they are looking for, using just three criteria – rocks the right age, the right type, and that are at the surface. This took him to the Catskills and then to the Canadian Arctic where after six years of searching his team found Tiktaalik, which was just what they were looking for. He stressed that the discovery wasn’t fortuitous, but found using the tools and expertise of the palaeontologist.

We then moved to even deeper time, and how every cell, gene and organ in our body has been shaped through time by the dynamic universe we live in, from the first subatomic particles and light atoms being created soon after the Big Bang, through nuclear fusion in stars producing heavier nuclei, supernovae heavier elements still. In more recent times the earth’s processes have shaped evolution in dramatic ways. Each of the cells in our body has a clock controlling out diurnal cycle, and the genetic basis of this is common to all life. Ice ages have has an enormous effect on the evolution of life and changing climate produced the savannah grassland which led to our ancestors becoming bipedal.

The message he wanted us to come away with was that although cosmology has inexorably moved us from the centre of the Universe while Darwin removed us from the centre of creation, our place in the Universe is not diminished, science has connected us to it.

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