The icing on the cake of my abroad experience was getting to talk to Sir David Attenborough. The man who inspired me, and thousands of others, to pursue the field of earth sciences. David, most notably known for his Planet Earth narrations, was just like you’d imagine he’d be: Bright-eyed, wiley, and whole-heartedly mesmerized by the world around him.
and that voice.
It’s just like it sounds in all the documentaries, and yet somehow, if humanly possible, more wholesome and authentic. It crackles like the comforting static on a well loved record player, and rings like wind chimes in a lazy summer breeze.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like every good story, it all happened because I happen to be in the right place at the right time.
While studying at UCL (University College of London) the Earth Sciences department was reopening its historic Kathleen Lonsdale Building. Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971) was a revolutionary crystallographer who largely shaped our current understanding of crystal structures. Her most noteworthy discovery proved that the hexamethylbenzene (say that 3 time fast) crystal lattice was both hexagonal and flat. This discovery has benefited both organic chemists and petroleum geologists alike. Furthermore, she also went on to discover Lonsdaleite, a carbon based mineral 58x harder than diamond. In doing so, she proved that diamond was not the hardest material on earth.
Whilst these discoveries were happening, a young David Attenborough was pursuing his geology degree at Cambridge. He recounted that he struggled deeply with crystallography and held the utmost respect for Mrs. Lonsdale. For this very reason, 92 year old David visited UCL to officially reopen the building where Kathleen Lonsdale made all the magic happen.
So there we were, a room full of paleontologists, microbiologists, geologists, physicists, and mathematicians anxiously staring down every older white gentlemen that walked into the room (which there was no short supply of). The energy was electric. I sat down next to a graduate astrophysicist student who impulsively told me she might cry (mind you we’re in London. Emotional expression is explicitly prohibited). And yet, when he glided into the room my friend Nicole and I gasped for breath and grabbed hands. Britain’s ,heck the world’s, best was in the room!
The first question asked to David was “How did you become a narrator?” He explained that he landed in television when his application for BBC radio was rejected. However, it came across the desk of the new and upcoming Television Department. They told him they had something new and mildly obtrusive, called the “television” in which they hoped to broadcast footage of exotic places, taking viewers out of their living room and into the wild. And well you know what Sir Attenborough decided.
At 92 David can move. He ran up to the stage, laughed loudly at his own wit and sprinkled encouraging anecdotes of life advice into every question. When asked about the lack of pedagogy amongst science professors he stated: “In our house professors were supreme. Even if my professors at Cambridge were not the best teachers, by that point I was so eager to be sitting at their feet I took whatever wisdom I could glean from them. It was just an honor to be learning from them.” When describing his childhood fossil collection he answered, “There’s nothing like cracking open a rock, the light shimmering down on a million year old creature, and your eyes the very first to ever see it. ”
At the end of the afternoon, I asked David what advice he would give to young scientists coming up in the field? To which He replied ,
“The most natural thing human beings can do is science. Having a question and then trying to figure out the answer to that question is what makes humans human. You don’t have to justify this to anyone.”
This experience reminded me how much science is a team effort. At its core, it requires specialists from all disciplines to build off the backs of those who came before. For this reason, scientists are actually quite spiritual; gathering every once in a while to pay their respects to the beautiful minds that paved the way.
Find a link to a dramatic video of the event here
Here’s a link to Snoop Dog narrating Planet Earth Instead :