Prof. Musil: Scientific potential never runs out; but today, collaboration between many disciplines is most important

Prof. RNDr. Rudolf Musil, DrSc., an internationally recognised palaeontologist and geologist, was one of the first generation of post-war graduates of the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University. This smiling and energetic author has published more than 300 professional publications and a number of monographs and books, most of which have been published abroad. He has also produced many popular publications aimed at the general public. His field of activity is wide, ranging from the Moravian Karst landscape, which he has known since childhood, to changes during the Quaternary period.

19 May 2019 David Baláš

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How was come to be at the Faculty of Science?

My father taught me everything about the forest. Although he was not a professional, he was very much grounded in natural science. He had a collection of stuffed birds, and he knew the forest better than the gamekeeper did. We went there day and night. He showed me where the badgers and foxes were and I recognised all the animals that lived there. As a kid, I started collecting minerals, rocks and fossils. I was building a herbarium, collecting plants and wood of various kinds. So I always liked nature. Even though I studied at a classical grammar school, where Greek and Latin were taught and, theoretically, I was supposed to focus more on humanities, nature always attracted me. After finishing grammar school, I was offered two options: either hunting or natural sciences at Masaryk University, and that’s how it actually started.

How was the admission procedure?

It was very simple then. I went to the Dean’s office, submitted my school-leaving certificate and gave my personal data. They asked me what I wanted to study and I replied natural history and geography. And so I was enrolled. There were no entrance exams at the time.

You started studying at Masaryk University just after the war. What was the university like at that time?

While the first unofficial semester began in June 1945, it could not be taught. Everything was destroyed, the Dean's office was located in what is today the gatehouse, and there was no place to sit except one classroom, the then large chemistry auditorium, which no longer exists. So we basically did auxiliary work and moved around. In the autumn, we normally started lectures and lessons. The structure of the lectures was interesting because it was necessary to provide completely different types of study at the same time. First, for those who had started to study before the war but were only now finishing their studies; then for those who were supposed to have started their studies but could not attend; and finally, those of us who started our studies right after the war. We each had a different amount of compulsory lectures that we had to attend, and we studied at a different pace.

What was teaching typically like then?

Although it was not obligatory, we went to all the lectures because there was no literature available; so what you did not manage to write down did not exist. We learned a lot by watching and trying to absorb what other people did and what they told us. Later, when a person was specialising, there was some literature available, but it was old, the latest information was simply missing.

The exams were different too - they were called colloquiums. From each colloquium we received an A4 format report stating what course we had passed and with what mark, and each was signed and stamped. Registration for exams was also quite different from today. Some teachers wrote that they would examine on certain dates only, while others wrote no dates at all. It was enough to come to them and agree when it would suit them. Many more things than today were up to personal agreement. It all depended on a particular professor or group of teachers.

What made the faculty different from the present one?

The post-war atmosphere was so relaxed. Contacts between students and teachers were more personal with a high degree of mutual trust. The collections and libraries were freely accessible for research. Certainly, in addition to the post-war euphoria, this was also possible because the teachers had more time for scientific activities and closer contact with students. Although we were always aware of the teacher’s position, we

dared to do many things that students could not afford to do today. But they took it as so much fun, in a friendly way. Relationships were quite different then. In addition to lectures and exercises, there were some optional excursions every Saturday, one being mineralogy or geology, another being botany or zoology, and so on. Registration was based a written note on the department’s board with information about where it was and what time the excursion would start. Those who wanted to go just enrolled so they would know how many people would attend, and that was it. It was all covered by the faculty. And they were not just one-day excursions; at the end of the summer semester, we went for a week, and again everything was paid.

You describe it as a very friendly environment, but how difficult were the studies?

The studies were challenging, despite the looser relationships. It involved exams as well as a completely different teaching structure than today. For example, the subjects I enrolled in were geography and natural history. Natural history included lectures and examinations in mineralogy, petrography, geology, palaeontology, anthropology, genetics, botany and zoology, while Geography included classic geography, geomorphology, hydrography and cartography. Other fields included practical philosophy and education. In addition to that, we also had examinations in physics and organic and inorganic chemistry. Today, these are mostly studied as separate fields, so the scope of study at that time was very wide. However, I am grateful for this because I gained great insights into what is needed today as regards a multidisciplinary approach.

How were your studies structured?

Completely different from today. It took only four years to graduate, and then students were offered one of two options. While it was possible to study for a Doctorate directly, few did. The second option was to study as a high-school teacher, which most did. Towards the end of this study, the teacher might select some individuals and suggest that they could still work on their Doctoral thesis to obtain a Doctorate. In addition to the dissertation thesis, it was necessary to pass two examinations, the small and large ‘rigorosum’ (oral exam). There were two state examinations in teacher training, the first was after the second year and probably represented what is now a Bachelor’s degree, but no diploma work was done. The exam took place in front of a committee made up of several specialists, and one earned the title RNC. At the end of the study, there was a second state examination, also held before the committee. The examination was preceded by a defence of the written work. Both the fields mentioned above had separate examinations. My themes were ‘History of Forests in Moravia’ for Geography, and ‘Plankton of the Knínič Dam, for Zoology. In the second case, it was original work and Prof. Hrabě suggested that I could do a Doctoral study with him. However, I was already working on a Doctorate in palaeontology.

How did the atmosphere change after 1948?

Until the 1950s, Masaryk University was still run with a system dating back to the First Republic. I did not experience the renaming or the pressure that was apparently exerted on the professorship then. It didn’t affect me, everything went in the old pre-war tracks. But over time, the situation definitely became tense, especially with the teaching staff. Apparently, they were forced to join the Communist Party or would have had to leave. But as I said, I did not really experience it so I cannot fully assess it.

After graduating, you joined the Department of Geology and Palaeontology at the Moravian Museum, how did you get to the university?

Even with my museum work, I attended external lectures at the Department, not only at the Faculty of Science but also at the Faculty of Arts. When they announced an audition for the Faculty of Science, I applied. I won the audition and have been here ever since.

Is there something you have always tried to do in your classroom?

I require a lot of direct contact with students. I don’t like students just sitting and silent. They may be taking notes but their minds may be somewhere else entirely. I think that in order to learn something, one must have immediate contact. There is a huge difference between Western students and our own, but I think it is in the population as a whole. In the West, I can be sure that if I have a half-hour lecture there will be an hour-long discussion. And not just any kind of discussion, they are usually pretty tough and sometimes the questions really stretch you.

You have a lot of experience abroad, what else is different there?

There is a totally different mentality, both in research institutes and universities. Teachers have direct contact with their audience and they may invite students to their home for dinner. For example, one evening after a conference the whole teaching staff and the students went for food and beer. We were talking about everything and suddenly, a student asked me something about what I had said in the lecture. He said that he was unsure about something; it was obvious that he had been thinking about it and that he was interested and wanted to discuss it. This is a huge difference between studying in the West and in our country. In the West, students seem to be aware that the more they know, the better the job they will get. It does not bother us. I don't really know if people here are afraid or just not used to it.

Most of your publications come from abroad, why is that?

My publications are largely based on my knowledge of collections in most European countries. As a specialist in fossil horses and bears, I took part in long-term research in West Germany. At that time, they didn't have a palaeontologist in my field so I did all my research there. I was also a member of projects at the University of Cambridge in the UK. Basically, I have been in touch with fellow specialists across Europe and beyond. Working abroad has been very interesting and has brought me a lot of information that was unknown to us then.

Do you also encourage your students to work abroad?

I always chose my Doctoral students on the basis of two basic requirements. Since the student will be dealing with a particular specialisation, I assume that they will know more than I do at the end because I cannot know his specialization in depth. The second requirement is that they go to conferences abroad throughout their studies and that they actively give lectures so they become known internationally.

In the Czech Republic, you have devoted a lot of time to the Moravian Karst and Stranska Rocks, what makes this location so interesting?

I have been working in the Moravian Karst since I was young. In fact, it was the finding of bones in cave sediments there that led me to my specialisation. The Stránská rocks are a unique location. In addition to important findings of fauna and flora, the oldest known stone tools in the country were found there. Palaeontological findings there include fossil vertebrates from 900 to 450,000 BC. It is also important for its uninterrupted sediment profile, which is up to 15 metres thick.

Do these sites still have scientific potential?

Their scientific potential never runs out. With the advent of new methods, new, previously unknown information, still appears. Today, for example, we are able to detect huge amounts of new data from the isotopes of various elements, which tell us how warm the water was that the animals drank, what they ate, or when and where they migrated. It can almost seem to the layman as if we were making it up. Fifty years ago, we had no idea that such things could be discovered, it’s unbelievable. But it is also due to the fact that, today, the work is multidisciplinary and uses a lot of computer programs.

Previously, there was no interdisciplinary work? In what ways does the work today differ from the past?

Today’s way of working requires a different strategy combining field research and economic management. In addition to individual, highly knowledgeable, experts from different disciplines who have been involved in active research for at least some time, we also need ‘executives’ with a wider perspective beyond their field of study, who are able to organise the different field and economic aspects of research. For example, in sediment research today, an archaeologist is not only interested in the archaeological findings. A lot of information is also to be found in the sediments themselves. Today, field research for many disciplines is more complex, financially demanding and time consuming, and thus more demanding as regards the research leader’s level of knowledge. The loss of information while in the field means a definitive loss of information overall. Today, taking a break of two years makes it very difficult to navigate new working conditions. Now, there is something new to learn every year.

What has caused this?

Over the last fifty years, all fields of study have been transformed by new working methods, which have led to new and previously unknown knowledge. Of course, basic descriptive work is still required, but this is only the first stage of processing. The aim is always to obtain an overall, global and comprehensive interpretation of any information obtained, not just a summary of the findings. Any project today is likely to consist of an international team made up of professionals from different disciplines as no one state is able to put together a team of the different experts needed. A case in hand would be the aforementioned project at the University of Cambridge, where I learned so much.

I found that they worked completely differently than I was used to. I expected to meet geologists, mineralogists, geochemists, anthropologists, paleozoologists, paleobotanists, archaeologists and maybe hydrologists; however, there were also specialists in such fields as mathematics, physics, computing and the like. When I first saw it, I was shocked. The groups worked on the issue independently, but then met once a year to discuss the issues raised - and this was very important. There, I learned how to deal with each issue comprehensively, and that the omission of a field of science required for the research can result in a huge loss of information. They also worked a lot with computers, but not just ordinary computers, they were mega-computers.

Why is it so important to know what happened in the past?

In order to know the present, we must know the past. We have to know that, although man has interfered in the course of nature, it is also changing by itself - and that we can’t separate the two things. People often judge only what they think they have done, but the natural environment is more complex and has its own laws. Take Africa, for example. Both before and during the Roman Empire, it was richly inhabited and its northern part was the breadbasket of Rome. So the drought that moved northwards and today reaches into our own regions is a normal and natural pattern, though, of course, it is also affected by humans.

Which have you enjoyed most out of the huge range of fields you have dealt with or touched on during your career?

I can't really answer that, every field has its own good points and they all complement each other beautifully. New knowledge in one field has an immediate impact on other disciplines. That’s why I can't put forward one discipline that interests me the most. Rather, it is the moment when one comes up with something new, when you discover something that was unknown until then, It does not matter in what discipline.

You have a lot of awards and medals, which do you value most?

Obviously, I greatly appreciate the numerous awards and recognition I have received from both foreign and domestic scientific institutes and universities. But it’s the work I did that I appreciate the most. It has been very broad, covering fossil vertebrates and their systematics, species and community development, biostratigraphic and ecostratigraphic issues, taphonomy and biostratonomy, the Pleistocene extinction, the first traces of domestication and the application of geological sciences in museology. So, to summarise, it does not matter if I have any medals or not, it is the work I leave behind that is important.

Obviously, you still have many plans. Can you tell me what your next dream is?

I want to write another book. It should summarise all of today's knowledge of fossil mammals and their relationship to the natural environment. I’m working on it now.

How do you maintain so much energy?

I’ve always been active - I've been doing all sorts of sports since I was young, from light athletics to hiking. But I think the combination of three factors has been important: genetic makeup, the previously mentioned activity and, especially, a positive way of acting and thinking.

Masaryk University is a few years older. What would you say to the university its 100th anniversary?

Every institute, department, faculty or university is made up of people. They may differ in their professions, but mainly in their character traits and approach to work. The leaders push the whole team, and thus the institution, toward a certain way of working. There are people who only disseminate old knowledge, but then there are people who are able to bring new ideas and new working methods, and they are crucial. Their views can sometimes be debatable, but there is no knowledge or progress without an exchange of views. There are not many such people and I would like Masaryk University to have as many of them as possible.

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