In the Hot Seat

By John Hawks

I am having a great day.

I’m watching our advance scientists brushing sediment off a fossil cranium, and it is thrilling seeing what they are uncovering. Lee Berger and the team at Wits has been preparing and carrying out this excavation for five weeks. Now that the system is in place and running smoothly, he’s taken off for a brief evening at home.

Leaving me in the hot seat: handling comms in the command center and being on-site fire-putter-outer. It’s a stressful job — monitoring the work on nine camera feeds, arranging drops of supplies into the site, and making sure that they have the support and safety they need.

Fortunately with this team there aren’t any fires to put out. The advance team of scientists in the cave are working great together, coming up with innovative solutions to the unique problems working in this environment. The cavers supporting them have been brilliant, anticipating what they need and keeping everybody safe. The senior science team is cataloguing, identifying pieces and working to conserve the remains. It’s an incredible system, and it’s been up and running through four full excavation days.

Our team has put itself in the hot seat in another way. If you know much about paleoanthropology, you’ve probably heard about how secretive field projects can be. New discoveries often go years without being announced to professional anthropologists, much less the public.

Why are so many projects so secretive? Discovery is hard work — both in the field and in the laboratory. Other scientists can be brutal critics, pointing out flaws in early interpretations. Sometimes they even steal your work. Our field has historically been a shark tank, and sharing makes the sharks start circling.

We believe that sharing will make our science better. Rising Star is the most open paleoanthropological project that has ever been attempted. We’re experimenting with new ways of sharing the experience. Lee brought together the team of advance scientists by putting out a call on Facebook. National Geographic has been incredibly supportive, with their crew onsite to share updates and video. The senior scientists are sharing updates on Twitter and Facebook, many events as they are happening — follow @LeeRBerger, @RisingStarExped, and @johnhawks.

This three-week expedition is only the beginning of our innovation. As we analyze the fossils, we are going to continue new experiments with sharing and open access. We’ve got some incredible things planned.

In my next post, I’m going to describe some of the challenges of sharing, and what we’re doing about them. We’re collecting new information from the site with every descent, and we’ve seen some tantalizing things we aren’t confident about. I’ll describe what we’re sharing and what we’re not sharing — yet. And we’ll invite your feedback about how to do it better.

I’ve had an extraordinary number of new fossils pass through my hands in the last four days. But here’s what finally brought me to tears: Our young scientists and cavers running up to the command center, cranking up the generator, so they could do a spontaneous Skype call to a third grade class in Rhode Island.

Keep watching.

Changing Planet

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