This is the oldest example of innovation I’ve ever encountered.

Jørn Harald Hurum (born November 4, 1967) is a Norwegian paleontologist and popularizer of science.  He is a vertebrate paleontologist and holds a position at the Geological Museum of the University of Oslo. He has studied dinosaurs, primitive mammals and plesiosaurs.

According to the BBC, on May 19, 2009 he announced the acquisition and scientific description of a 47 million year old, 95% complete skeleton of a primitive primate, Darwinius masillae, that had been in the private possession of an amateur fossil collector for 25 years. Hurum named the specimen “Ida”, after his daughter. The Latin name was in honor of Darwin’s 200th birthday. The fossil is the oldest complete fossil by far, of a primate.  Ida looks like a lemur, but in fact belongs to the monkey genus and may shed light on the evolution of humans. Hurum assembled a ‘dream team’ of 10 world-leading paleontologists. The result of their study of the fossil was published on 19 May in the online journal PLoS One. 

Hurum has aroused great controversy because he is also a populizer, and has made a BBC documentary, built an IDA website and appeared on the History Channel.   He rejects the extravagant claims that the fossil is ‘the missing link’ and an ‘extraordinary breakthrough’, but does think it will shed light on how humans evolved.  

How does one become a paleontologist?  Hurum recounts that when he was 6 years old, his mother read him a story about a little boy who picks up and throws stone. One stone, the  story recounts, spoke to the little boy. “Don’t throw me away!” it yells.  “I can tell you a story”. And the stone, containing a fossil, tells a story of a creature that lived millions of years ago.

That story led Jørn  Hurum to collect fossils and ultimately to become  a paleontologist.  I find this significant; by reading to our young children, we can plant passions and ideas that much later become powerful motivators.

Because he is also a ‘populizer’, and moderates a weekly TV program for children, Hurum has been attacked by other scientists. I believe this is unfair. Hurum published his article, along with his colleagues, in a reputable journal. The article was ’embargoed’ (i.e. forbidden for distribution prior to publication) as is common practice.  Nonetheless, as a result,  NATURE, a leading journal, attacked Hurum (even though NATURE does the same embargo).  Many scientists make their careers by acquiring pre-prints and attacking the article and its findings even before it appears. SCIENCE and NATURE did this with Hurum’s study. Scientists who take the trouble to explain, carefully and accurately, what they are doing and what it means to ordinary people should be praised, not attacked. 

Innovators should not find the attacks on Hurum unusual. If you cannot innovate yourself, you can attack others who do.   

IDA – 47 million years young. She has fingernails, not claws, and the contents of her last meal (fruit and leaves) are still in her stomach! She has been preserved in polymer plastic. Hurum’s Institute paid something approaching $1 m. for her from a fossil dealer.