Posted by: georginaferry | November 5, 2010

Star-studded series

I’m late in reporting on the final event of the Museum’s anniversary year, an excellent series of public lectures taking place each Wednesday. The museum has lined up an incredible array of distinguished scientists and others, many familiar from our TV screens and all highly engaging in the flesh. This week we had Richard Fortey on trilobites, of which more later, but the series was launched two weeks ago with one modest and intrepid natural historian talking about another.

David Attenborough lectured at the Museum on 20 October

Sir David Attenborough’s title was ‘Birds of Paradise’, but his talk was really a hymn to the generosity and sheer hard work of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace was the first European to see birds of paradise in their natural habitat in the islands between the Malay archipelago and New Guinea. His observations of their mating displays convinced him that their extravagant plumage had evolved through the process of sexual selection. Male birds perform intricate and spectacular dances for the benefit of female birds, usually drably coloured themselves,  who then choose a mate apparently on the basis of their prowess on the dancefloor and the magnificence of their dress.

Just as he does on his TV programmes (and look out for his latest series, First Life, beginning tonight on BBC television), Attenborough used arresting footage of birds doing extraordinary things to introduce his audience to ideas about natural selection, specifically female mate choice and male competition. But time and again he returned to Wallace, who deserves all our admiration for modestly accepting that he would forever be in the towering shadow of Charles Darwin despite having reached the same conclusions.

One of the museum's fossil trilobites

This week Richard Fortey of London’s Natural History Museum returned to his first love, trilobites, and through an astonishing series of images showed us how palaeontologists use the remarkably diverse body shapes of this group of long-extinct animals to understand how they made their living in the Cambrian oceans. Needless to say the Museum has examples of many of these species on display, and it was an added bonus to be able to nip into the court once the lecture was over to marvel at Walliserops trifurcatus and its many relatives.

Still to come we have Professor Kay Davies on her research towards a treatment for muscular dystrophy, George McGavin on – what else? – beetles, and the novelist Tracy Chevalier on the 19th century female fossil collectors of Lyme Regis, subject of her latest book Remarkable Creatures. The lectures have been attracting huge crowds, needless to say, with David Attenborough’s fully booked almost as soon as booking opened. So hurry up and get your tickets if you want to hear the rest – booking is at the University’s website.

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