Science - A night to remember

23rd December 2011 at 00:00
The ultimate guest list for a celebration of man's evolution

On New Year's Eve 1853, a dinner party was held in an unusual location, the inside of a model dinosaur, an iguanodon. The model, one of many created by the sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, is in the grounds of Crystal Palace. I would love to recreate the event, but who to invite, to enthral with tales of exploration, adventure and science?

Richard Owen (1804-1892), who attended the original dinner, would be interesting. He invented the name "dinosaur" and was the architect of the Natural History Museum in London, his "cathedral of science".

No celebration of the history of life on earth would be complete without the two men responsible for the greatest scientific theory of all time: evolution. So Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) would be at the head of my table. Their tales of exploration, from the jungles of South America to the Malay Archipelago, would beguile.

Another guest, whose life and work fascinates me, would be Mary Anning (1799-1847) from Lyme Regis. She was the inspiration for the tongue-twister, "She sells sea shells on the sea shore". She found the first plesiosaur and made many other great discoveries including a pterodactyl and several ichthyosaurs, earning her living by selling her "curiosities". What did she make of these fantastic creatures when she first found them? They were like no living creature then or now.

Science has moved on from Victorian times and many great discoveries have been made that explain some of the mechanisms of evolution. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), whose work was vital to discovering the helical structure of DNA, deserves more recognition. I would love to ask how annoyed she was with Crick and Watson after they used her research, without permission, to discover the structure of DNA.

Alice Roberts, anatomist, author and broadcaster, whose TV work has done much to inform us about how the human race has evolved, could add her perspective on human evolution.

The party wouldn't be free of controversy. Owen, a creationist and initial admirer of Darwin, turned against him after the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. His contempt is set in stone in the Natural History Museum. Numerous tiles and bricks feature sculptures of flora and fauna. Living species feature in the west wing, extinct ones in the east wing. Owen saw no link between past and present species; Darwin did.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at Sussex University

What else?

Give students the opportunity to dig for their own dinosaur remains at the National History Museum's Dino Scene Investigation workshops. Dates in early 2012 are now available for booking.

For more on the debate between evolutionists and creationists, try Adam Rutherford's Teachers TV documentary.

A range of further resources exploring Darwin and his theories is available on TES Resources.

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