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89 year old shares a lifetime of knowledge at TEDxAdelaide

A lifetime dedicated to studying radiolarians, tiny plankton with an intricate glassy exoskeleton, led to 89-year-old Bill Riedel talking about evolution to over 700 people at a recent TEDx Adelaide event.

William Riedel in his working days
William Riedel in his working days

The South Australian scientist looked at what his 65 years of examining the distant past could mean for the future.

After receiving his Bachelor’s degree from University of Adelaide in 1947, Mr Riedel continued with his post-graduate studies. Taking the advice of his mentor, the explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, he began studying palaeontology and then radiolarians.

At the time, radiolarians were overlooked by scientists, but over the next six decades, Mr Riedel’s work proved important in developing our understanding of the earth’s geological and biological history.

“I think I was terribly lucky to be able to work on these terrible little critters my whole life,” he says.

Mr Riedel’s career took him to Oceanographic Institute in Gothenburg Sweden. It was here he recognised the structure of fossilised radiolarians differed according to the period, and he also realised some finds were actually older than first assumed. This cleared the way for the development of radiolarian stratigraphy, and the recognition of evolutionary lineages.

He later worked at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California where he pioneered deep sea core drilling in the 1950s and 60s, lectured and oversaw research in the 1980s.

“I went to sea from time to time which was great,” says Mr Riedel.

In the 1990s he experimented with computer databases and expert systems, although he feels ‘it didn’t lead anywhere particular’.

The TedxAdelaide event was an opportunity for Mr Riedel to share his knowledge with the wider community.

“I admire the whole TED system, but I’ve never been involved in it before now,” says Mr Riedel. “They’re always worthwhile and very broadening.”

Mr Riedel says he spent a month writing and rewording his 10 minute TED talk, which focus on his ideas around evolution from a micro fossil point of view.

He highlights the theory of evolution put forward by French scientist Lamarck which centres on the law of use and disuse and the law of inheritance of acquired characteristics was shot down by Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ theory some decades later.

However, Mr Riedel feels Darwin’s theory doesn’t necessarily fit with animals which are incompetent. “Darwin’s theory works on those who best survive, but this doesn’t happen in microscopic simple animals which float around, can’t swim, cant chase to eat and can’t avoid been eaten,” he points out.

“I haven’t come across anyone saying this before, it’s very fundamental,” he says “Welcome to this new field!”

Mr Reidel, who was born in Tanunda returned to live in the Barossa Valley in the 1990s. He says he continues to be fascinated by new ideas.

TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a not-for profit global foundation that's been around since the 1980's, which operates an online platform for people to share ideas and spark conversation though its TED Talk videos.The TEDx program helps share ideas in communities around the world through local independent events.

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