The man who played with dinosaurs

We had some sad news in the department earlier in the week. We heard from his son that Professor R McNeill Alexander FRS had passed away at the age of 81. I didn’t know Neill very well, but we had chatted a few times over coffee in the department, which he still visited regularly until a year or two ago. We also lived in the same area of Leeds and I saw him often at the local farmers market. However, there was one particular encounter with Neill that I remember vividly, and I wanted to share the anecdote:

dinosaur-470161_960_720I was at a local Cafe Scientifique in 2013 when I saw Neill give a short presentation and demonstration of some of his world-leading research on dinosaur locomotion. However, rather than this being in front of an auditorium full of people (as would befit a Fellow of the Royal Society, former President of the Society for Experimental Biology, former President of the International Society for Vertebrate Morphologists, author of countless books and articles, the list goes on…), Neill gave an informal presentation to a group of four young children, their parents, and me. Sat in the cafe at Leeds Museum, Neill quietly explained to the small audience the history of his discoveries: how dinosaur models could be used to evaluate mass and centre of gravity, how dinosaur tracks could be used to infer gait, stride, and speed. I don’t recall him taking any personal credit, although it was his to claim, but rather he discussed the ideas as having been a communal advance. Then, at the end of the talk, Neill sat with the children and played with them using the same toys from which he had drawn such inspiration as a researcher and through which he had revolutionised so much of what we know about animal biomechanics and locomotion. I don’t know who the children were, and I don’t know whether they or their parents were aware that they were sat playing with dinosaurs alongside one of the greatest scientists of his generation, but for me that is perhaps the purest example of science communication that I have ever witnessed.

RIP Robert McNeill Alexander (1934-2016)

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