August 5, 2008

Rock Stars of Past and Present

Musicians and scientists share their passion for fossils in a new TV series

When it comes to firing the British public with enthusiasm for old rocks, few people could be better qualified than Dr Hermione Cockburn. The presenter of Fossil Detectives, a new series created by the Open Unversity and the BBC Natural History unit, Cockburn is an earth scientist and Open University tutor, who left full-time academia five years ago to pursue a career in science television. She's been seen in What the Ancients Did for Us, Rough Science and Coast, but Fossil Detectives will be the one she is most proud of, she says, because its subject is "closest to my heart".

"Fossils are beautiful and fascinating in their own right, but are also packed with scientific meaning. Imagine walking along the beach, and amongst the thousands of pebbles your eye catches the unmistakable swirl of a glistening ammonite. You may be the first and only person for millions of years to see it. I challenge anyone not to be thrilled by that.

"Fossils also connect us to the past in a way nothing else can. They are vital to our understanding of the evolution of the planet, to life on earth and to our own evolution."

Fossil Detectives sees Cockburn and a team of experts - Dr Phil Manning, Dr Anjana Khatwa and James Wong - travelling around Britain and Ireland and homing in on particular locations for evidence of long-vanished animals, plants and landscapes. It shows how familiar spots in our quiet countryside were once washed by tropical seas and stalked by creatures like the Cuckfield Iguanodon, one of the earliest dinosaurs ever found, and the West Runton giant elephant.

"Because of the nature of fossil-hunting, quite big scientific discoveries have often been initiated by complete amateurs," says Cockburn. "The West Runton discovery was made by two locals who were keeping their eyes peeled and saw a bit of bone sticking out of a cliff. It turned out to be the most complete skeleton of that species of giant elephant ever found. When it was alive, about 650,000 years ago, it was over four metres tall and weighed more than 10 tons."

To prove that everyone can have a go, the series digs up some celebrities with a passion for fossils: singer/songwriter Billy Bragg who shows Cockburn the fossil collection he and his son have amassed over their years in Dorset, and rock star turned writer Alex James, of Blur fame, who reveals why he's been fossil-hunting since he was a little boy.

The real high point for Cockburn was meeting her hero Sir David Attenborough and spending an hour chatting over his fossil collection, she says. "I watched David Attenborough's programmes throughout my teenage years. He inspired me to move into the communications area, where hopefully I can inspire other people to become interested in earth sciences."

The OU/BBC website will be running activities to inspire viewers who want try their hand at finding fossils. And for those who are successful, the Open University has produced a free field guide to fossils to help viewers identify their finds. You can get this by calling 0870 010 0878.

'Fossil Detectives' is scheduled to start on Thursday 21 August on BBC Four at 7.30pm, but check listings for details.

(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.