Thursday, February 26, 2009

Happy (belated) Birthday, Mr. Darwin!

I'm delighted to report that - through unintended logistical opportunity - I was the Darwin Day speaker at the Nairobi National Museum's monthly seminar, which just happened to be on Darwin's Birthday (Feb. 12th). I gave an overview of my dissertation research, and a shorter second talk centering around the day's auspicious date. It was the first time I've ever given a talk about Darwin or the history of evolutionary thought.

I bought a cake for the occasion - how often does Darwin turn 200 and I'm the invited speaker on the same day? I designed the top decoration when I learned the bakery could print out, on edible icing, any picture of your choosing. So I modified the design from the Essig Museum's (of the Berkeley Natural History Museums) Darwin Day flier, which was quite spiffy already. I added some barnacles on the left, some orchids on the right, and increased the resolution of his face since I was worried he'dcome out all grainy on the icing print-out. After the usual logistical ado that is typical of Kenya, I managed to get the cake safely from the bakery to the seminar room on the appointed day. Huzzah. The image is above, and next the actual cake prior to demolition.

I have to say, my research talk was probably the best research talk I've ever given. There are many ways I want to improve it, if I get the chance to give the talk again, but overall it was the most comfortable, most well-spoken talk I've ever given on my research. I'm proud of my slides, the content and logical flow, and my ability to articulate on my feet the big and small ideas alike.

My Darwin talk was less about Darwin himself and more a brief history of evolutionary theory since 1859 (which I would not have been able to do without my advisor's seminars on Darwin and evolutionary theory, and Gould's Structure of Evolutionary Theory - thanks much!). From there I segued into current questions being researched in evolutionary biology, touching on paleobiology, macroevolution, and evo-devo, then moved on to an overview of the state of science understanding and education in America, the re-emergence of creationism, likely sources of the problem, and likely solutions, ending with a infomercial-esque plug for the Coalition On the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) and their Year of Science 2009 initiative.

Overall, I quite enjoyed the experience (at least once it was underway), and I hope to have the opportunity to give one or both of these talks again while I'm in Kenya. The talks ran long, but a lot of people stayed the whole time. And, even though I had planned for ~50 people when I ordered the cake, approximately 20 people managed to eat two-thirds of the cake. I'd call it a success.

I carried the giant cake box the quarter mile back to the guesthouse through the choking fumes of rush-hour traffic and made a gift of the leftovers to the hotel staff. Once I communicated my intentions and the location of the cake, there was a discrete stampede into the kitchen and many broad smiles the rest of the evening - although most were under the impression it was my birthday. I'm not sure many grasped that it was Darwin's 200th birthday, or that many of them know who Darwin was anyway.

I nabbed the last piece of cake with any remnant of Darwin on it (the brim of his hat) and ate it out in the garden, then took the rest of the night off. It was VERY good cake.

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