The Universe Within

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The aim of the talk The Universe Within: A Scientific Adventure was, in Neil Shubin’s own words: “to investigate the common history of rocks, planets, and people”. Neil Shubin, author of the titular book, drew information from a multitude of scientific disciplines, ranging from cosmology to biology to his own field of specialisation, palaeontology, to give insight into the imprint that the history of the natural world has left on humans.

After introducing us to stratigraphy and fossil typology, Shubin recounted his own involvement in the hunt for one of the most sought-after transitional fossils, the Tiktaalik roseae. Discovered amidst sedimentary Devonian rock formations on Ellesmere Island in northern Canada, the Tiktaalik fish represents the shift of life in water to life on land, a transition whose history can be traced in our DNA, much like the timeline of the evolution of prehistoric life forms can be sketched via the study of fossil stratification.

Attention soon shifted to a grander scale, as Shubin gave a brief account of the early stages of the Universe following the Big Bang; atoms and molecules formed from the early particle soup, leading to the development of suns and planets and, ultimately, life.

In the final part of the talk, the significance of the Earth’s place in the solar system was explored; the Earth’s 24-hour rotation was shown to affect the human circadian rhythm, and the Earth’s precession, triggered by its interaction with the rest of the planets, was shown to have affected glacial onset. The effect of this was the movement of early humans from woodlands to plains in Africa, which was an important step towards bipedalism and the evolution of Homo sapiens.

With an eclectic range of scientific fields at his disposal, Neil Shubin impressively elucidated the effect that a diverse array of phenomena has had on humans. Some connections he drew may have been somewhat obvious, but it appealed to all ages and knowledge levels and never strayed from clarity of presentation and meticulous attention to detail. It featured a host of examples and anecdotes and illuminated the finer scientific details of a subject not rarely associated with vague talk and mysticism. The talk certainly fulfilled its rather ambitious stated goal of exploring the link between the natural world and the human body.

The Universe Within: A Scientific Adventure talk took place at the Science Museum on 29 January 2013.

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