Durant, John. +quot;It's a Fake! It's Genuine!You Decide+quot; [Review of] The Feathers Fl

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Durant, John. "It's a Fake! It's Genuine!--You Decide" [Review of] The Feathers Fly: Is Archaeopteryx a Fake? A special temporary exhibition in the British Museum (Natural History), London, UK. Opened August 18, 1987. The Scientist, November 2, 1987. [John Durant is a staff tutor in biological sciences in the Department for External Studies, University of Oxford, Wellington Square, OX1 2JA, UK.] In 1985, the astronomers Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe wrote an article in the British Journal of Photography claiming that Archaeopteryx is a fake. An ordinary dinosaur fossil, they suggested, had been treated with a paste of powdered limestone, into which bird feathers had been pressed in order to create the illusion of an extraordinary, dinosaur-like bird. Despite a swift rebuttal by British Museum staff in Science magazine (Charig et al, vol. 232, May 2, 1986, pp. 622-626), Hoyle and Wickramasinghe have repeated their claim in a popular book (Archaeopeteryx, The Primordial Bird, Christopher Davis, 1987), and now the museum has put on an exhibition setting out both sides of the dispute. This exhibition bends over backwards in an effort to be seen as fair to its critics. Its entrance looks rather like a polling station, with a red rosette on one side labelled "It's a fake!" and a blue one on the other labelled "It's genuine!" Thereafter, arguments are color-coded and presented in parallel. Throughout the exhibition, visitors are encouraged to make up their own minds on the balance of the evidence presented. I decided to do just that. The exhibition begins with a 4-5 minute videotape of a recent television news item. Fred Hoyle comes across as very self-assured and trenchantly anti- establishment--no real suprises there. The museum representative, in contrast, is altogether more reserved--quietly confident, perhaps, but certainly indignant at Hoyle's suggestion that the museum's first superintendent of natural history, Sir Richard Owen, knowingly bought a fake in order to discredit Charles Darwin and his early supporters. I scored this exhibit 50:50. After the video, there is a collage of relevant newspaper and journal articles. This gives a sense of the public ocntroversy, but most of the headlines appear to be of the museum's side. Either this reflects a real lack of support for Hoyle and Wickramasinghe in the media, of else it is a slip in the museum's posture of political balance. I found this exhibit impossible to score. The next exhibit deals with the five known Archaeopteryx fossils, represented by casts (exact copies) and photographs. The first two specimens, found at the same site in 1861 and 1877, both have feathers; the red label says they were faked by the same people. The third specimen (1950) has no feathers, but the blue label claims you can see where they were. The fourth has feathers, but the red label says the specimen is too poor to count. The fifth specimen (1970) produces the most straightfoward disagreement: the blue label says it has feathers and the red label said it does not. I looked hard and thought I saw feathers, but couldn't be sure. I ignored specimens one and two pending further evidence about faking and three pending further evidence about feathers; I awarded number four to the museum, and five was a draw. All in all, 60:40 to the museum. This left just the star of the show, the 1861 specimen itself, on display again for the first time in 20 years. The fossil is in two halves-- slab and counter-slab. Red labels claim that: (1) the two halves don't match properly; (2) the feather impressions are too good to be true; and (3) sticky deposits on the exposed surfaces are remnants of glue used by fakers to doctor the surface. Blue labels reply that: (1) the two halves do match properly, but the surface of the slab has been excavated to reveal more details of Archaeopteryx's tail; (2) the feather impressions are no better than many other fossils obtained from the same rock; and (3) the sticky deposits come from legitimate scientific work on the fossil. I scored points 1 and 2 to the museum, and point 3 a draw (how do I know what the sticky deposits are?). Overall, 60:40 to the museum again. By the end of the exhibition I had come down clearly in favor of the museum. But what does this really mean? After all, the British Museum is itself one of the protagonists in the dispute, and presumably it wanted the balance of the evidence in its favor. The real question for me (and, I suspect, for most visitors) is this: whose judgment do I trust more: the British Museum's or Fred Hoyle's? As it happens, I came to the exhibition with some prior knowledge of Hoyle's biological and geological writings (though not those on Archaeopteryx), and this certainly prejudiced me in favor of the museum. Most visitors will not have this background, and for them the judgment will be trickier. I spoke to a man who had just finished taking his family around the exhibition. Like most visitors I saw, he appeared to be trying hard to weigh up the arguments. His reaction? "Well, I think it's helpful. I mean, it brings home to the man in the street the problems they're got in sorting out a famous thing like that. Maybe they've got it wrong; but then again, maybe the guy just wants to make a name for himself. I really don't know." Science in public really is quite a bit like politics.


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