What's in a Fossil? The Playbook for Our Future as a Species
The awareness that we can choose our future is new to us as a species.
Kirk Johnson is the Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History. He oversees more than 460 employees, an annual federal budget of $68 million (museum’s federal budget in FY 2012) and a collection of more than 126 million specimens and artifacts—the largest collection at the Smithsonian. The Museum of Natural History hosts an average of 7 million visitors a year, and its scientists publish about 500 scientific research contributions a year.
As a vice president of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Johnson was part of a team that led the museum and managed its $40 million annual budget. The museum, which receives 1.4 million visitors per year and has a staff of 400, launched a $170 million capital campaign in 2005.
As chief curator at the Denver museum, Johnson oversaw a 70-person research and collections division that included curators, archivists, conservators and technicians and managed its $3.5 million annual budget. He was responsible for the museum’s 24 collections, and he led the completion of the museum’s first comprehensive long-term collections and research plan. He served as a curator of paleontology since joining the museum in 1991.
Johnson is the author of numerous scientific papers, and he has edited seven scientific volumes. He has written nine books, including his most recent, Digging Snowmastodon: Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies, which was published by the museum and the People’s Press in 2012.
When I say the word fossil most people think "dusty old museum and fossil." But fossils are incredibly important because they tell the story of this planet in a way that no other object does.
No matter how good the breakthroughs are in modern science, there’s still a story to be told by the bodies of extinct plants and animals that lived for the last three-and-a-half billion years on this planet. It’s the history book of our planet and it frames for us the knowledge of how our planet works.
Now we live on a planet with seven billion people, up from 1.7 billion people three generations ago, four generations ago. And we are facing a century - the twenty-first century - that’s incredibly interesting and challenging: more people, more need for resources, incredibly rapidly changing technology. What fossils give us is the playbook of this planet that’s happened before. And it frames the opportunities we have for choosing our future.
We are at a point in time now where we actually have the opportunity to choose our future. The awareness that we can choose our future is new to us as a species.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
The stories we tell define history. So who gets the mic in America?
- History is written by lions. But it's also recorded by lambs.
- In order to understand American history, we need to look at the events of the past as more prismatic than the narrative given to us in high school textbooks.
- Including different voices can paint a more full and vibrant portrait of America. Which is why more walks of American life can and should be storytellers.
A glass of juice has as much sugar, ounce for ounce, as a full-calorie soda. And those vitamins do almost nothing.
Quick: think back to childhood (if you've reached the scary clown you've gone too far). What did your parents or guardians give you to keep you quiet? If you're anything like most parents, it was juice. But here's the thing: juice is bad for you.
Orangutans join humans and bees in a very exclusive club
- Orangutan mothers wait to sound a danger alarm to avoid tipping off predators to their location
- It took a couple of researchers crawling around the Sumatran jungle to discover the phenomenon
- This ability may come from a common ancestor
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