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Fossil Collection Calls Berkeley's Clock Tower Home


When you have a series called Joe's Big Idea, as our Joe Palca does, you've got to keep your eyes and ears open for good stories. Joe got a pitch about the 100th anniversary of a tower on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. It's home to 20 tons of fossils and a carillon. He was intrigued. You could say he went for the bones, but stayed for the bells.


JOE PALCA, BYLINE: This story starts just after noon near the very top of a 307-foot tall clock tower on the Berkeley campus.


PALCA: That's a carillon, or in this case, a grand carillon made up of 61 bells. University carillonist Jeff Davis is playing a tune called "A Mince Pie Or A Pudding," a tune he wrote for the carillon. Carillons come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but Davis says there are certain minimums.

JEFF DAVIS: Twenty-three bells arranged in chromatic sequence being able to be played expressively by a keyboard.

PALCA: Unlike a piano or organ keyboard, this one is made up of large levers and foot pedals. These connect to cables that run up to bells in the space above us. Davis hammers on the levers expressively with his fist.


PALCA: Although there have been bells of one sort or another up here at the top of the tower for 100 years, the grand carillon has only been here since 1983.

DAVIS: We have beautiful, beautiful treble bells here.

PALCA: That's the good news about the Berkeley carillon. Davis says there's also bad news.

DAVIS: It's placed too far above the ground, really, to have the kind of majestic effect that a carillon could have.

PALCA: Although speaking of majestic, you do get a magnificent view of the San Francisco Bay from the top of the tower. Now, I get why they put a carillon in a tower, but what about the fossils? What are they doing here? Mark Goodwin says there's a simple answer.


PALCA: Goodwin is the assistant director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology. Paleontology was booming at Berkeley in 1913 when the bell tower was being built. And even then, Goodwin says space on campus was at a premium. We're standing in a high-ceilinged room near the base of the tower. There are shelves and cabinets everywhere, all stuffed with fossils.

GOODWIN: So we have five floors like this.

PALCA: It's quite a collection. A lot of these bones are from creatures that got stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.

GOODWIN: Giant sloths, tigers, lions, and then one of my favorites is the North American camel.

PALCA: Camel - there were camels in LA.

Would it look like what I think of as a camel?

GOODWIN: Yeah, it looks like a modern camel.


GOODWIN: We also have invertebrate collections - mollusks, clams and snails. We have micropaleo collections from the oil companies that were put in here.

PALCA: And wait - there's more.

GOODWIN: We have a big bird collection. There's a huge coyote skeleton - mammoths - elephants - American bison - mastodons - rhino casts.

PALCA: OK, OK, there's a lot of stuff. But what's it all good for? Goodwin says plenty.

GOODWIN: They're not just dusty old bones sitting on shelves, even though they are, but they're very useful for getting at information and trying to answer questions about paleoecology, paleoclimatology and things like that.

PALCA: In other words, question such as what's changed in the 10,000 years since the LA Basin resembled an African savanna instead of what we see today. Goodwin sees this collection as an invaluable resource. and I suspect there's one thing that makes it truly unique.

So as far as you know, is this the only paleontological collection that has its own carillon?

GOODWIN: Yeah. Until that hypothesis is falsified, I can confidently say yes to that question.

PALCA: If anyone knows of another, be sure to let me know. My Twitter handle is @joepalca. Joe Palca, NPR News, Berkeley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.