Dinosaur poo, planets and penguins!

9 October 2019

Original published in Pick Magazine 

There’s fun galore for all the family across Oxford this October (18-28) with IF Oxford, the annual science and ideas festival. You can enjoy dozens of free hands-on activities for all ages in Westgate Oxford, Oxford Town Hall and Templars Square (19 & 20, 26 & 27 October) including the chance to hold meteorites and moon rock, 50 years since people first walked on the moon. Visitors can also become an environmental detective, explore the effects of colour on emotions with gaming students from City of Oxford College, investigate levitating vehicles, and use a smart phone to investigate human anatomy.

At Oxford’s Westgate on Saturday 19th October, look out for a giant green dinosaur, whose tummy opens, and out spills street theatre telling the story of nineteenth century palaeontologists and their fossilized finds in a fun family show where puddings spin and pigeons fly from pies. Visitors can watch, for free, a group of Victorian scientists in top hats and tails who famously dined inside a life-sized model of an iguanodon during the 1853 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace.

The word Iguanodon is an amalgam of the word iguana, and the ancient Greek odous or ‘tooth’ because of the similarities between the fossilized teeth of this dinosaur and those of the South American Iguana. Some of their dinosaur discoveries can now be seen in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Iguanodonskeleton in the museum is posed standing with its tail on the ground. Although this is how dinosaurs were originally thought to stand, look carefully and you’ll see that actually the tail would have had to be broken for the dinosaur to stand this way – Iguanodon would most likely have taken a more ‘road-runner’ stance. Dinosaurs, or rather our understanding of them, have been reconfigured over the last fifty years. Hear moreabout these colourful feathered beasts, their genetics and biomechanics from expert Mike Benton, who is giving a talk at Waterstones on Wednesday 23 October.

In the museum itself you can hear about the new technology used to decipher Jurassic Brain Teasers with palaeontologist Stephan Lautenschlager (Tuesday 22 October) or see a piece of the very first dinosaur ever found and scientifically described anywhere in the world, found here in Oxfordshire, at Stonesfield near Woodstock. Discovered by William Buckland, an early Oxford geologist and theologian, its anatomy suggested it came from a giant lizard like animal from long ago and so it became the Megalosaurus bucklandii, or ‘Buckland’s giant-lizard’. (Illustration from the museum)

William Buckland was one of the geologists who dined in the Crystal Palace Iguanodon. He was fascinated by coprolites – fossilised poo! From Ichthyosaur coprolites found in Lyme Regis which included crushed bone material, he drew conclusions on their diet and he used coprolites found in a cave in Yorkshire to demonstrate the presence of hyenas there in earlier times. He also had a series of polished coprolite cross sections made into a table off which he used to eat his dinner, and his wife Mrs Mary Buckland apparently sported coprolite earrings!

A case in the museum’s gallery shows a varied selection of Buckland’s finds including the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’, the earliest evidence of modern humans in Britain 34,000 years ago when ice sheets reached across much of the UK and mammoths, rhinos and vast herds of deer roamed the freezing landscape.

Alternatively in the Old Fire Station Café on Monday 28 October, visit a board Game café and have a go at creating your own ‘Planet, spreading oceans and glaciers, mountain ranges and deserts, and planning hospitable environments for animal life to develop and populate continents and countries! Choose from a range of board games exploring scientific ideas from playing with tropical fish to uncover the economic principles of an efficient market to saving lives in the perennially-popular ‘Doctor Panic’, an app-led timed game reminiscent of the popular game Operation where players cooperate with one another as doctors trying to save the life of the patient.

There will also several games to play developed by Oxford-based researchers including, for example, Living in Harmony’ created by Jessy Philips. Jessy is a penguin scientist who spent 7 weeks camping on Nelson Island off the Antarctic peninsula to study chinstrap penguins. Without access to the internet, she designed a board game to provide the team with entertainment.

‘I started by sketching the tents we were staying in, then decided to create a penguin and a seal character, making a game about their interactions. As weather essentially dictated our lives, I created six weather conditions that changed whenever a character landed on one of the frequent weather squares. Each character hasa different objective: the penguins need to feed their chick; the seal has to eat penguins (and bite the researcher), and the researcher just wants to get tracker data back from the animals and make a trip to the rather isolated toilet!’ she explains.  

For more planets and penguins in the same place (an a funny anecdote about penguin poo on a luxury ocean liner), look out for BBC astronomer and Professor of Astrophysics Chris Lintott as he talks about his new bookThe Crowd and The Cosmos, a fascinating look at the everyday people powering contemporary research from Antarctica to the far reaches of the universe. (Friday 25 October.)

With these and dozens of other events on offer, IF Oxford gives family members of all ages an opportunity to think about the world around them, what we can learn from the past, in the present and for the future, to explore big ideas and ask even bigger questions about science, humanity, the world at large and beyond. You can see the whole festival programme at if-oxford.com


Original published by Pick Magazine http://pickmag.co.uk/