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← The fascinating places scientists aren't exploring

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Showing Revision 8 created 07/15/2019 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. So I've got something that I'm
    slightly embarrassed to admit to.
  2. At the age of 17,
  3. as a creationist,
  4. I decided to go to university
    to study evolution
  5. so that I could destroy it.
  6. (Laughter)

  7. I failed.

  8. I failed so spectacularly
    that I'm now an evolutionary biologist.
  9. (Applause)

  10. So I'm a paleoanthropologist,
    I'm a National Geographic Explorer

  11. specializing in fossil hunting in caves
  12. in unstable, hostile
    and disputed territories.
  13. And we all know that
    if I was a guy and not a girl,
  14. that wouldn't be a job description,
    that would be a pick-up line.
  15. (Laughter)

  16. Now, here's the thing.
    I do not have a death wish.

  17. I'm not an adrenaline junkie.
  18. I just looked at a map.
  19. See, frontline exploratory science
    does not happen as much

  20. in politically unstable territories.
  21. This is a map of all the places
    which the British Foreign Office
  22. have declared contain
    red zones, orange zones
  23. or have raised some kind
    of a threat warning about.
  24. Now I'm going to go out on a limb here
    and say that it is a tragedy
  25. if we're not doing frontline exploratory
    science in a huge portion of the planet.
  26. And so science has a geography problem.
  27. Also, as a paleoanthropologist,

  28. guys, this is basically a map
    of some of the most important places
  29. in the human journey.
  30. There are almost definitely
    fascinating fossils to be found here.
  31. But are we looking for them?
  32. And so as an undergraduate,
    I was repeatedly told
  33. that humans, be they ourselves,
    homo sapiens, or earlier species,
  34. that we left Africa
    via the Sinai of Egypt.
  35. I'm English, as you can
    probably tell from my accent,

  36. but I am actually of Arab heritage,
  37. and I always say that I'm
    very, very Arab on the outside.
  38. You know, I can really be passionate.
  39. Like, "You're amazing! I love you!"
  40. But on the inside, I'm really English,
    so everybody irritates me.
  41. (Laughter)

  42. It's true.

  43. And the thing is,
    my family are Arab from Yemen,

  44. and I knew that that channel,
  45. Bab-el-Mandeb,
  46. is not that much of a feat to cross.
  47. And I kept asking myself
    this really simple question:
  48. if the ancestors to New World monkeys
    could somehow cross the Atlantic Ocean,
  49. why couldn't humans cross
    that tiny stretch of water?
  50. But the thing is, Yemen,
  51. compared to, let's say, Europe,
  52. was so understudied
  53. that it was something akin
    to near virgin territory.
  54. But that, along with its location,
    made the sheer potential for discovery
  55. so exciting,
  56. and I had so many questions.
  57. When did we first
    start using Bab-el-Mandeb?
  58. But also, which species of human
    besides ourselves made it to Yemen?
  59. Might we find a species
    as yet unknown to science?
  60. And it turned out, I wasn't the only one
    who had noticed Yemen's potential.
  61. There was actually
    a few other academics out there.
  62. But sadly, due to political instability,
    they moved out, and so I moved in.
  63. And I was looking for caves:
  64. caves because caves
    are the original prime real estate.
  65. But also because if you're looking
    for fossils in that kind of heat,
  66. your best bet for fossil preservation
    is always going to be caves.
  67. But then, Yemen took
    a really sad turn for the worse,

  68. and just a few days
    before I was due to fly out to Yemen,
  69. the civil war escalated
    into a regional conflict,
  70. the capital's airport was bombed
  71. and Yemen became a no-fly zone.
  72. Now, my parents made this decision
    before I was born:

  73. that I would be born British.
  74. I had nothing to do
    with the best decision of my life.
  75. And now ...
  76. Now the lucky ones
    in my family have escaped,
  77. and the others, the others
    are being been bombed
  78. and send you WhatsApp messages
    that make you detest your very existence.
  79. This war's been going on for four years.
  80. It's been going on for over four years,
    and it has led to a humanitarian crisis.
  81. There is a famine there,
  82. a man-made famine.
  83. That's a man-made famine,
    so not a natural famine,
  84. an entirely man-made famine
    that the UN has warned
  85. could be the worst famine
    the world has seen in a hundred years.
  86. This war has made it
    clear to me more than ever
  87. that no place, no people
    deserve to get left behind.
  88. And so I was joining these other teams,
    and I was forming new collaborations

  89. in other unstable places.
  90. But I was desperate
    to get back into Yemen,
  91. because for me, Yemen's really personal.
  92. And so I kept trying to think
    of a project I could do in Yemen
  93. that would help highlight
    what was going on there.
  94. And every idea I had just kept failing,
  95. or it was just too high-risk,
    because let's be honest,
  96. most of Yemen is just too dangerous
    for a Western team.
  97. But then I was told that Socotra,
    a Yemeni island,

  98. was safe once you got there.
  99. In fact, it turned out there was a few
    local and international academics
  100. that were still working there.
  101. And that got me really excited,
  102. because look at Socotra's
    proximity to Africa.
  103. And yet we have no idea
    when humans arrived on that island.
  104. But Socotra, for those of you who know it,
  105. well, let's just say you probably know it
    for a completely different reason.
  106. You probably know it
    as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean,
  107. because it is one of the most
    biodiverse places on this earth.
  108. But we were also getting information
  109. that this incredibly delicate
    environment and its people
  110. were under threat
  111. because they were at the frontline
    of both Middle Eastern politics
  112. and climate change.
  113. And it slowly dawned on me
    that Socotra was my Yemen project.
  114. And so I wanted to put together
    a huge multidisciplinary team.

  115. We wanted to cross the archipelago
    on foot, camel and dhow boat
  116. to conduct a health check of this place.
  117. This has only been attempted
    once before, and it was in 1999.
  118. But the thing is, that is not
    an easy thing to pull off.
  119. And so we desperately needed a recce,
  120. and for those of you who aren't
    familiar with British English,
  121. a recce is like a scouting expedition.
  122. It's like a reconnaissance.
  123. And I often say that a really big
    expedition without a recce
  124. is a bit like a first date
    without a Facebook stalk.
  125. (Laughter)

  126. Like, it's doable, but is it wise?

  127. (Laughter)

  128. There's a few too many
    knowing laughs in this room.

  129. Anyway, so then our recce team thankfully
    were no strangers to unstable places,

  130. which, let's be honest,
    is kind of important
  131. because we were trying to get
    to a place between Yemen and Somalia,
  132. And after calling in
    what felt like a million favors,
  133. including to the deputy governor,
  134. we finally found ourselves on the move,
  135. albeit on a wooden cement cargo ship
  136. sailing through pirate waters
    in the Indian Ocean
  137. with this as a toilet.
  138. (Laughter)

  139. Can you guys see this?

  140. You know how everybody has
    their worst toilet story?
  141. Well, I've never swam
    with dolphins before.
  142. I just went straight to pooping on them.
  143. (Laughter)

  144. And also, I genuinely discovered
    that I am genuinely less stressed

  145. by pirate waters
  146. than I am with a cockroach infestation
  147. that was so intense
  148. that at one point I went belowdeck,
  149. and the floor was black and it was moving.
  150. (Audience moans)

  151. Yeah, and at night there was
    three raised platforms to sleep on,

  152. but there was only --
    let's say there was four team members,
  153. and the thing is, if you got
    a raised platform to sleep on,
  154. you only had to contend
    with a few cockroaches during the night,
  155. whereas if you got the floor,
    good luck to you.
  156. And so I was the only girl in the team
    and the whole ship,
  157. so I got away without
    sleeping on the floor.
  158. And then, on, like,
    the fourth or fifth night,
  159. Martin Edström looks at me and goes,
    "Ella, Ella I really believe in equality."
  160. (Laughter)

  161. So we were sailing on that
    cement cargo ship for three days,

  162. and then we slowly started seeing land.
  163. And after three years of failing,
  164. I was finally seeing Yemen.
  165. And there is no feeling on earth
    like that start of an expedition.

  166. It's this moment where
    you jump out of a jeep
  167. or you look up from a boat
  168. and you know that
    there's this possibility,
  169. it's small but it's still there,
  170. that you're about to find something
  171. that could add to or change our knowledge
    of who we are and where we come from.
  172. There is no feeling like it on earth,
  173. and it's a feeling
    that so many scientists have
  174. but rarely in politically unstable places.
  175. Because Western scientists
    are discouraged or all-out barred
  176. from working in unstable places.
  177. But here's the thing:

  178. scientists specialize in the jungle.
  179. Scientists work in deep cave systems.
  180. Scientists attach themselves to rockets
    and blow themselves into outer space.
  181. But apparently,
    working in an unstable place
  182. is deemed too high-risk.
  183. It is completely arbitrary.
  184. Who here in this room
    wasn't brought up on adventure stories?
  185. And most of our heroes
    were actually scientists and academics.
  186. Science was about going out
    into the unknown.
  187. It was about truly global exploration,
    even if there were risks.
  188. And so when did it become acceptable
    to make it difficult for science to happen
  189. in unstable places?
  190. And look, I'm not saying
    that all scientists should go off

  191. and start working in unstable places.
  192. This isn't some gung-ho call.
  193. But here's the thing:
  194. for those who have done the research,
    understand security protocol
  195. and are trained,
  196. stop stopping those who want to.
  197. Plus,
  198. just because one part of a country
    is an active war zone
  199. doesn't mean the whole country is.
  200. I'm not saying we should go
    into active war zones.
  201. But Iraqi Kurdistan looks
    very different from Fallujah.
  202. And actually, a few months
    after I couldn't get into Yemen,

  203. another team adopted me.
  204. So Professor Graeme Barker's team
    were actually working in Iraqi Kurdistan,
  205. and they were digging up Shanidar Cave.
  206. Now, Shanidar Cave a few decades earlier
  207. had unveiled a Neanderthal
    known as Shanidar 1.
  208. Now, for a BBC/PBS TV series
    we actually brought Shanidar 1 to life,
  209. and I want you guys to meet Ned,
    Ned the Neanderthal.
  210. Now here's the coolest thing about Ned.
  211. Ned, this guy,
  212. you're meeting him before his injuries.
  213. See, it turned out
    that Ned was severely disabled.
  214. He was in fact so disabled that
    there is no way he could have survived
  215. without the help of other Neanderthals.
  216. And so this was proof that,
  217. at least for this population
    of Neanderthals at this time,
  218. Neanderthals were like us,
  219. and they sometimes looked after
    those who couldn't look after themselves.
  220. Ned's an Iraqi Neanderthal.

  221. So what else are we missing?
  222. What incredible scientific discoveries
  223. are we not making
    because we're not looking?
  224. And by the way, these places,
    they deserve narratives of hope,
  225. and science and exploration
    can be a part of that.
  226. In fact, I would argue
    that it can tangibly aid development,
  227. and these discoveries
    become a huge source of local pride.
  228. And that brings me to the second reason
    why science has a geography problem.

  229. See, we don't empower
    local academics, do we?
  230. Like, it's not lost on me
  231. that in my particular field
    of paleoanthropology
  232. we study human origins,
  233. but we have so few diverse scientists.
  234. And the thing is, these places
    are full of students and academics
  235. who are desperate to collaborate,
  236. and the truth is
  237. that for them,
  238. they have fewer security issues than us.
  239. I think we constantly forget that for them
    it's not a hostile environment;
  240. for them it's home.
  241. I'm telling you,
  242. research done in unstable places
    with local collaborators
  243. can lead to incredible discoveries,
  244. and that is what we are
    hoping upon hope to do in Socotra.
  245. They call Socotra

  246. the most alien-looking place on earth,
  247. and myself, Leon McCarron, Martin Edström
    and Rhys Thwaites-Jones could see why.
  248. I mean, look at this place.
  249. These places, they're not hellholes,
    they're not write-offs,
  250. they're the future frontline
    of science and exploration.
  251. 90 percent of the reptiles on this island,
  252. 37 percent of the plant species
    exist here and nowhere else on earth,
  253. and that includes this species
    of dragon's blood tree,
  254. which actually bleeds this red resin.
  255. And there's something else.

  256. People on Socotra,
    some of them still live in caves,
  257. and that is really exciting,
  258. because it means if a cave
    is prime real estate this century,
  259. maybe it was a few thousand years ago.
  260. But we need the data to prove it,
    the fossils, the stone tools,
  261. and so our scouting team
    have teamed up with other scientists,
  262. anthropologists and storytellers,
  263. international as well as local,
    like Ahmed Alarqbi,
  264. and we are desperate
    to shed a light on this place
  265. before it's too late.
  266. And now, now we just somehow
    need to get back

  267. for that really big expedition,
  268. because science,
  269. science has a geography problem.
  270. You guys have been
    a really lovely audience.

  271. Thank you.
  272. (Applause)