Monday, 21 February 2011

Dr Scott, Dr Phil and the Orange T. rex

Today I had the pleasure of giving a public lecture at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. Little could have prepared me for the teeming hordes of 4-7 year olds clambering past and over each other to gain a glimpse, or maybe even a touch of the sacred hide of a rather fluffed-up orange T., this was not a mad dream, but the telle-tubby-like reality that was 'The Dinosaur Train'.

I snuck into the back of the lecture theatre where I would give my talk in an hour. I was met by a packed auditorium listening to Dr Scott Sampson talking dinosaurs. Dr Scott is a real 'Dr' of palaeontology..a well-respected and extensively published scientist...who took the leap, like myself, into the world of the media. I choose documentaries with National Geographic, the History Channel and the good old BBC, Dr Scott choose pre-school TV...brave Dr Scott. However, we both choose public engagement in science as a major part of our careers. His scientific work truly rocks, but I think even he was surprised at the size of his audience...most were under 3 feet in height. With a maximum average height of 3'6''...the tales of nesting raptors and the important message that birds were dinosaurs was being swamped by the mutual diminutive wish that a 5'4'' orange T. rex going by the name of 'Buddy'...would soon join the erstwhile host of the said show...our friend Dr Scott.

I stood mesmerized at the back of the auditorium. Dr Scott valiantly pushed-on with his talk as the excited chatter of 'where's Buddy', gradually increased in volume among the expectant crowd. From a cracked door in the corner of the auditorium I'm sure I spotted a nervous human-head poking out of the top of a bloated orange dinosaur body...that was about to be fitted with a bizarrely enlarged theropod dinosaur head, complete with bulging eyes...I was not sure if this was a function of the fear levels being felt by the incumbent of the said costume. Having worn such a dino-outfit myself back in my Yorkshire Museum days, I was well aware of the kicking, pushing, thumping, dino-tipping antics of children...and their parents. I would just like to point out to all parents out there, that when a dino-suit wearing person is kicked over and is lain helpless on their backs, it does not look cute and is definitely NOT a photo-opportunity.

As Dr Scott summed-up his lecture to the listening parents, he hailed the coming of his good friend, Buddy. Huge gasps and screams were let-out by the waiting throng as the giant soft-toy gingerly entered the theatre...was that a timid step back towards the entrance? My heart went-out to the orange velour-clad student who had clearly been assured that this 'event' would look great on their CV...but maybe without the picture. You can imagine the line in the said CV, 'I took part in a major palaeontology open day at the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, where I actively engaged with children from many areas of the City'... beats saying, 'I dressed-up as an orange T. rex and was chased around the building by thousands of screaming, over-excited kids'.

As the teaming hoard ebbed slowly from the room, I'm sure I heard Buddy scream for the said dumpy-dinosaur was chased to the upper floors of the building by never-ending tide of kids. Every now and then a staff walkie-talkie would report on Buddy's current location...the hunt for the orange T. rex was merciless!

I looked down at computer screens and at the content of my lecture. Then I looked-up at the audience. I looked back down again at my lecture and realised that the 'Dinosaur Train' had cut my usual expert audience of 9 year olds to a mixture of toddlers, confused parents and exhausted Academy staff. My title of 'Blasting dinosaurs into another dimension'...and more importantly the content of my lecture... suddenly looked impossibly difficult. My slide of an atom, with its simple nucleus and careless orbiting electrons, now looked like quantum mechanics... and my birds-eye view of a synchrotron...might as well have been the blue-print for space ship design a long way away in the dim and distant future. I hastily re-wrote my talk in my head and looked at how much stage space there was for Monty-Python style silly walks...this would be a short 45 minute talk...more like 30 minutes!

I was introduced to the expectant audience. The lecture theatre lights dimmed, I took a deep breath...and stepped into the jaws of a battle-ship grey T. rex...bring back Buddy...I might just need him!

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