Breaking the black box

Professor Lee Burger calls it breaking the “black box”. By black box he means the way those who came before him conducted scientific explorations. And he doesn’t really want to break anything… just shake things up a little with powerful new technology and social media. The search for Homo Naledi has made use of technology right from the start. The whole thing began, in fact, with photographs taken inside the Chamber of Stars, which were emailed across the globe as Berger searched for funding.

To lure international explorers, the professor posted an advert on Facebook. Before long, he had over 60 applicants ready to be interviewed via Skype (from these, six women were chosen to go down into the cave and retrieve the fossils).

Because the chute leading into the burial chamber is so narrow, Berger and many others were never able to enter it. So they “watched it on television” through cameras brought in by the “underground astronauts” who helped lay down some 3.5 kilometres of cable. The cave system was also mapped out (with white light scanners) and recreated digitally, allowing scientists to virtually fly through it and to “be there in spirit”. A drone was used to render the topography above the caves in order to complete the picture. Professor John Hawks, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, says that was, by far, the coolest bit of technology used during this mission.

Click here to see the fly-through of the Rising Star caves.

Inside the cave, photographs and video clips were shot as fossils were found and brought to the surface. These were shared on Twitter and other social networks. People were able to follow the exploration live. The astronauts would emerge from the labyrinth of tunnels covered in dust and would log onto Skype to speak to an excited group of children in another country. The intention was to make the exploration as open as possible. To share it with the world, step by step.

More importantly, technology made it possible for dozens of scientists on different continents to interrogate the fossils. The key pieces were scanned and instructions were sent to experts across the globe. Those instructions – or codes – were used to 3D print exact replicas, which could be peer-reviewed.

As with anything new, Berger’s approach of open-source science has its critics. He answers them by saying that the intention is not to grandstand or boast about projects, but to share them with the world to which they belong. In generations past, scientists would work quietly at a site and then three, five or maybe ten years would pass before someone would shout: “Boom! Here’s what we found…”. But Berger believes that’s the old world. That’s the black box inside which science has been locked up for far too long. The new world is about sharing. Even if that means holding off on the speculation until proper analysis can take place. But, argues Berger, there’s no reason why people shouldn’t follow explorations as they unfold. If done right, he says, the results are #magnificent.