Desktop Diaries: Tim White

"People get really interested in learning about where they came from. It's genealogy writ large," says paleoanthropologist Tim White about evolutionary history. When White isn't hunting for remains of our human ancestors in Africa, he's stationed in his museum-like office at the University of California, Berkeley, where he's director of the Human Evolution Research Center.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Time for our Video Pick with Flora Lichtman. She's here. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Oh, a special one this week.

LICHTMAN: Special one this week. We have the next installment in our Desktop Diaries series. So this is the series of videos where we talk to stars of science, and then ask them personal questions based on their desk trinkets.

FLATOW: Yes.

LICHTMAN: And we found the perfect subject for Desktop Diaries this week, as far as I can tell.

FLATOW: Perfect.

LICHTMAN: Tim White, paleontologist, fossil hunter, co-discoverer of Lucy, was part of the team that found - his team found Ardi, the older fossil. So we visited him at his lab, you know, one of his labs...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...because he's also in the field all the time - at Berkeley, and he has so many artifacts in his office, it's like visiting a museum.

FLATOW: The - so he's got more than one desk. He's got them spread out all over the place?

LICHTMAN: So he has multiple desks in the office. And then he has, you know, offices - he also works in Ethiopia, and he also works in the field, and he seems to bring back a lot of cool stuff with him. So he had, like, you know, just laying around, a four-million-year-old bear tooth. And, you know, a replica of the Ardi skull and a homo sapiens skull.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: It just - it was coated, covered with really neat stuff. And he was very generous and spent a lot of time showing us. A lot of it.

FLATOW: Weren't you afraid...

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I'd be afraid of breaking something with all that stuff.

LICHTMAN: I didn't touch anything.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Don't knock it over. Oh, no.

LICHTMAN: He had this great story, though. You know, he was talking about how when he was a little kid, he went to the La Brea tar pits and went to the museum in L.A. County, the Natural History Museum, and he saw these rows and rows of saber tooth tiger teeth.

FLATOW: Right. Right.

LICHTMAN: You know, these long teeth. And he said that as a little kid, all he wanted was just one of those teeth. And then he proceeded to show us hundreds and hundreds of teeth that he has, you know, totally accessible to him.

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: So you could see where this interest came from.

FLATOW: I'll bet. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. Ira Flatow, talking with Flora Lichtman. It's our Video Pick of the Week. It's our Desktop Diary. And if you want to see it, it's up there on our website. It's a nice long one this week.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Because he had a lot of...

LICHTMAN: He had a lot to say; he had a lot of stuff.

FLATOW: And you know what you caught on there was his enthusiasm, I thought. It really was really interesting about how enthusiastic he is.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, absolutely. We talked a little bit about why this is such a controversial field, and he has Darwin stuff everywhere. And he told me a little story. We have a little clip of it for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO CLIP)

TIM WHITE: The study of human origins has been controversial since before it was even a study of human origins. Darwin comes up with this idea that humans are linked to the rest of life, right? And how do the cartoonists characterize Darwin? They put his head on the body of a chimpanzee. Why do they do that? To make the point of how absurd this idea is that we evolved from a chimpanzee.

Well, Darwin got that. Darwin never said we evolved from a chimpanzee. Darwin said it would be a mistake to project any living organism back as what our ancestor was like. Instead, we need to find it through the fossil record. Now we're in the 21st century, and people still get really interested in where they came from. It's genealogy, writ large.

LICHTMAN: That just gives you a flavor. He's really fun to listen to and to speak with. And if you would like seven minutes of that, please go to our website and watch our video.

FLATOW: Yeah. And it's a visual - it's a visual seven minutes. Beautiful artifacts up there, all those teeth. And it's interesting how he compares the brain, skull sizes. Right?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. That was a real a-ha moment for me. Seeing these fossils, actually seeing these replicas of things that are from 4.4 million years ago...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: ...that are so much - so different from what we are. I mean, he put, side by side, a sort of anatomically modern human from 150,000 years ago with this Ardi skull from 4.4 million years ago.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: And it's just quite shocking.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: I don't know how else to say it.

FLATOW: No, it is...

LICHTMAN: It was arresting.

FLATOW: It is, and it's why it's on our - that's why it's our Video Pick. The picture speaks a thousand words on this thing.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: You know, you look at these comparisons, and it's great. And he has desktops full of stuff. If you want to see a lifelong - the guy has been doing this forever, almost. And if you want to see what happens when you collect all these paleontological tchotchkes and put them on your desk.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: This is what it looks like. And look out for the snakeskins.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

LICHTMAN: Because that's a great story. You don't know where it's going.

FLATOW: Yes, I had no idea.

LICHTMAN: And it's hilarious.

FLATOW: You've got to listen to the snakeskin story. There's a recipe in there somewhere, too...

LICHTMAN: Exactly.

FLATOW: ...as a bonus.

LICHTMAN: News you can use.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: It's our Video Pick of the Week, up there on our website at sciencefriday.com if you'd like to see a whole bunch of great stuff on his desktop. And that's about all the time we have for today. If you missed any part of our program, or maybe you'd like to hear it again and share it, you can subscribe to it or listen to it on our website at sciencefriday.com. Also, we're on iTunes and Android apps, and you can subscribe to them there.

You can point your Tablet to our website at sciencefriday.com. And while you're there, join our mailing list. We'll give you some extra features if you become members on our mailing list. And if you like SCIENCE FRIDAY, like us on Facebook. And we, of course, continue a week-long discussion on Twitter @scifri. Have a great weekend. Flora is sitting in for me next week. She'll be here.

LICHTMAN: Enjoy.

FLATOW: Thank you. I'm Ira Flatow, in New York.

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