Science Goes Metal!

On May 19th, 2009, I was in the center of a media storm rarely associated with scientific finds when we announced the news of the fossil Darwinius masillae, which became world famous under the name Ida.

Five years later, I was connected by a common acquaintance to a fellow paleontologist, Achim Reisdorf. In 2013, the German Reisdorf and New York-based producer Submerged started the project Science Slam Sonic Explorer (SSSE).

The idea behind SSSE is to offer scientists a new platform for outreach. Science Slam is a well-known concept, but SSSE goes one step further by adding original music and video.

Ida is the fifth video SSSE have produced. My lyrics are recited by Life of Agony singer Mina Caputo, backed by the band Gator Bait Ten, including ex-Swans drummer Ted Parsons.

The track opens with a sample from a 1909 recording of the opera Aïda with the “A” removed, leaving only “Ida”. Before long, opera is replaced by a heavy groove, with my lyrics interspersed with actual quotes from the scientific debate. Esther van Hulsen’s illustrations from the children’s book about Ida feature heavily in the accompanying video.

My text summarize five years of academic discussions about Ida. I do not claim to possess the ultimate truth, and recognize that others may disagree with my conclusions. Even if I should turn out to be wrong in the end, it has been a once in a lifetime experience.

The intention in participating in this project is not to have a go at anyone in particular but to do something unexpected and exciting. And tell the story of a media blast and a scientific controversy from a researchers own standpoint.

My text:

In the year of Darwin 2009
A fossil was described
Named Darwinius masillae
Her nickname became IDA
Her skeleton is complete
Her body outline preserved
And last meal in her stomach
She lived 47 million years ago
And she is a primate

The scientists describing her
Placed her on the line
That much later
Evolved into us

This sparked a scientific controversy
The group of primates where IDA belonged
Are by most scientists
Believed to be closer to

47 million years is a long time
Most animals that lived so long ago
Are crushed into unidentifiable pieces
Some pieces survive
But very fragmentary remains can not
Tell the story like a complete skeleton.

The scientific discussion
Sums up to:
– my fossil is more important than your fossil!
Scientists say ”nothing new in IDA”
Others claiming that their single teeth,
jawfragment or anklebone are much more important
Scientists claiming that IDA is too crushed to tell anything
(Without ever seeing the fossil)

The more complete a fossil is
the more difficult it is to fit it into
the present interpretation of fragments

Critics are seldom objective,
usually scientists have hidden agendas
(attack is the best defense)
this is something the journalists should learn to understand
The more furious a scientist is
the more fragmentary are his own fossils…

The philosophy behind IDA:
”The nature of science”
The researchers wanted
to show the process of science
not only the result
A scientific paper is the start of a debate
not the end

Many scientists do outreach
to impress their colleagues
not to tell the public about their research

The goal of the outreach
In the IDA project
was to move the perspective
of non-specialists on human evolution from
”something that happened a few million years ago in Africa”
”we have relatives 47 million years ago”
= Evolutionary perspectives in deep time

The last five years
Has been like a very slow
Tennis match
Disagreeing scientists are arguing
In different journals
No one changes their mind….
Ida is still the most complete fossil primate
ever found
no one disagrees on her beauty
she is today in most textbooks
but the controversy continues

Human Journey


Meet the Author
Jørn Harald Hurum was born in Drammen, a city on southeastern Norway. Since childhood he has collected fossils and minerals in the Oslo region. Since 2000 he has been employed at the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo where he works as an associate professor in vertebrate paleontology. At the University he teaches paleontology and evolutionary biology and supervises masters and Ph.D. students. One recent outreach effort brought him on stage before a general audience interested in his Arctic island project excavating fossils of ancient sea monsters. “There was a four-year-old in the front row and he couldn’t stop asking questions, really good questions” Hurum remembers. “This little boy was so excited to know there was somebody else who understood the things he was wondering about. He made my whole day! As a child, I felt very alone with my interest in fossils. Finally at age 13, I discovered there was a museum in Norway that actually employed people to study paleontology. I started corresponding with those scientists and it was such a relief, such an inspiration. I hope I can give some of that spirit back to the next generation.” Learn More About Jørn and His Work