A story of contingency
I was recently reading Dinochick Blogs and noticed that the author had just received her Primeval Predators: the plastic animals of the Burgess Shale. You may remember these plastic animals from a few years back, when I gave a paper at Kalamazoo and used them as visual aids.
Anyway, I have a story about the Burgess Shale animals, my daughter, and famous actors.
A couple of years ago I was part of the educational programming at The Gathering of the Fellowship, part II, in Toronto, a Tolkien fan event. The Gathering had different levels of tickets you could buy that gave you different kinds of access to the people there. There was a "VIP" event one evening at which the various speakers, artists and actors (from The Lord of the Rings films) would meet and greet people who had purchased the VIP tickets.
Now, the people who bought these tickets wanted to meet the actors from the films, not meet me, and I figured that I would go to the event, watch people talking to the actors, and then leave. But there were a few wrinkles.
My son, who was two years old, was really having trouble falling asleep in a hotel room with all the rest of us present and awake. So while my wife worked on getting him to sleep, I took my daughter, who was nearly six years old, down to the event. That day we had been at the Royal Ontario Museum, and I had bought the Burgess Shale plastic animals--for my teaching, but when you have a six-year-old and you buy plastic animals, you can bet that she'll be playing with them.
So I found a corner of a room for her to sit on the floor with Anomalocaris and Wiwaxia and Opabinia, making a little animal circus. Then, to my surprise, a few people wanted to talk to me about Tolkien. While I was talking, I drifted away from my daughter and got more involved in the conversation.
Then suddenly I noticed a lot of flashbulbs going off. When I turned around I saw, and I am not making this up, Craig Parker, who played Haldir in The Lord of the Rings sitting on the floor playing Burgess Shale animals with my daughter. He was completely surrounded, and I am not making this up either, by a circle of (mostly) women with cameras, taking pictures of him playing with Anomalocaris, et al. I stood there in shock and watched this, and it went on for about fifteen minutes. He and my daughter kept chatting and doing "Burgess Shale circus" (Anomalocaris and Opabinia can both do very good backflips) and people stood around and took pictures of them.
Now I'm sure that part of this whole thing was that Craig wanted a short break from all the people who were chatting with him. But it was really awfully nice of him to play with my daughter all this time. And for the rest of the event, he went out of his way to go up to her, give her a hug and say "hi." She also became friendly with Bruce Hopkins, who played Gamling. And so, by the end of the Gathering, my daughter was saying "There's my friend the famous movie star," and "there's my other friend, the famous movie star who wanted to take his horse surfing" (a story Bruce made up for her).
So it all started with the Burgess Shale animals, and I think Stephen Jay Gould would have been pleased and surprised what his book Wonderful Life had wrought. Certainly all the contingency that interested him is evident in this story.
(Last year, at the Santa Fe Institute, I got to meet Doug Erwin of the Smithsonian. When I got back from SFI, my daughter said "The next time you see him, can you ask if we can borrow Opabinia?" I haven't dared ask that question.)