NNFN – Digging Up Ideas

Freya Hardy, editor of AQUILA Magazine, and author of The Big Book of Science Ideas, here talks about how ideas have always managed to travel around the world, and are even more unstoppable today.

I love ideas. And, as a writer for children who is alive in Britain in the 21st century, that’s fortunate, because I get to interact with hundreds of them every day. I barely have to lift the lid on my laptop. In fact I’ve only been awake for about 40 minutes and already I’ve been presented with a You Tube channel called Pasta Grannies, which documents Italian Nonnas’ pasta-making skills (amazing, by the way); a headline about putting green number plates on electric cars so drivers can get discounts on parking, and more suggested Ikea-hack Pins than I can shake my paintbrush at. I take for granted that I can get my hands on any ideas I want, even utterly ridiculous ones, without really trying. 

But it wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time (not that long ago at all – and we must bear in mind that in some communities in the world this is still the case) new ideas were like buried treasure. They had to be hunted down, rooted out, translated, transcribed, dug up or excavated. Access to new ideas often depended heavily on where you were born, and to whom. 

Let’s look, for example, at the big idea that species can become extinct, and that fossils are the remains of those species.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that fossils were evidence of real creatures that had once lived on Earth. Leonardo Da Vinci read Aristotle and agreed, but it wasn’t until coal mines began to reveal more fossilized evidence that people like George Cuvier began to investigate further. 

At this time, if you were born male, in Europe, to a notable family with money (like William Conybeare), you could expect to go to school and learn to read. You might attend a university where you could go to lectures and visit libraries. There you could interact with a whole host of ideas, old and new. 

Alternatively, if you were born female and to poorer parents, you probably would not have had much formal education. You might have learned to read and write at Sunday school. If so, your reading materials would probably have been limited to biblical texts and cheaply printed journals. 

Mary Anning was just such a woman. Poor, with only meagre schooling, Mary’s prized possession was a journal that contained two articles by her family’s pastor, Rev. James Wheaton. One of these urged readers to investigate the new science of geology. Unlike physics and other law-based sciences, geology was easier for ordinary people to engage with because quarry men, coal miners and anyone that visited the seaside could find and interact with fossils. Fossil collection was a business. It could make money, and that meant ordinary people could spend time doing it.  

Along with her brother Joseph, Mary was trained to hunt for fossils by her father, Richard. When Richard died, in 1810, Mary’s mother Molly took over the running of the business. Over the years Mary would go on to collect a number of fossilized skeletons of long extinct species, including the first ichthyosaur. 

Mary may not have had a university education but she did have on-the-ground skills and was able to make observations that others were not. All kinds of learned people began corresponding with Mary and visiting her home town of Lyme Regis in order to exchange ideas. 

Female geologists wouldn’t be admitted to the Geological Society as members until 1919, over 70 years after Mary’s death. But her achievements are proof that ideas can travel, and they don’t just get passed down from educated social elites to the rest of the population. Local knowledge, craft knowledge and practical knowledge is vital too (Pasta Grannies on You Tube is a modern-day example of exactly this). Ideas can transcend barricades and blockades, social barriers and geographical boundaries. Even in the most tightly controlled, strictly segregated societies, ideas continue to move and evolve. There’s no stopping them.  That’s why ideas are powerful. Anyone can have one. Including you. 

Mary Anning is one of 50 featured thinkers in The Book of Big Science Ideas, published by Ivy Kids, written by Freya Hardy, and illustrated by Sara Mulvanny.

Thanks to Dr Rebekah Higitt at the University of Kent for her help with the research for this piece.

This is a guest post by Freya Hardy and does not necessarily represent the views of the FCBG.

“The Big Book of Science Ideas” written by Freya Hardy, illustrated by Sara Mulvanny.  ISBN: 9781782407386 (Ivy Kids) £14.99

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