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Lumen Autumn 2017 Issue
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Mawson tip proves a masterstroke for Bill

Emma Gardiner

William Reidel giving a TedX talk in Adelaide
When celebrated Antarctic explorer and University of Adelaide academic Sir Douglas Mawson offered advice, you tended to listen.

Young palaeontology graduate William Riedel certainly did and it took him down an unexplored path of study that continues nearly 70 years later.

“I’d started my postgraduate work at Adelaide and was still trying to figure out what fossils I was going to study,” says Bill, now aged 89.

“Mawson had returned from his Antarctic expeditions with sediment samples from the ocean floor and was interested in getting people to work on the microfossils they contained.

“Radiolarians was one of those groups and no-one was studying them. It was a marvellous suggestion and the turning point in my life.”

Radiolarians occur as zooplankton throughout the oceans and initially Bill was the only scientist studying their fossilised remains and evolutionary progress.

His research took him to Sweden’s Oceanographic Institute in Gothenburg in 1950 and then to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, where he remained for nearly 50 years.
With a colleague he initiated the idea of using a commercial drilling vessel to retrieve sediments from seabeds which provided a magnificent resource for studying radiolarian evolution.

Bill retired to the Barossa in 2000 – just five kilometres from where he was born – but the wealth of knowledge he has accumulated during his career is still in high demand. Only last year he was a guest speaker at TEDx Adelaide.

“I’ve had such a lucky life and I’m immensely grateful that Mawson suggested radiolarians. They are beautiful creatures and I’ve got to look at them all my working life. It’s supported me very well, thank you.”

“Now I’m here retired, in good health and having a great amount of fun.”

And Bill is still studying “those little critters”.

“There are said to be about 200 to 300 species of radiolarians in the tropics and I concentrated on about 50 during my working life. I still have 150 sitting there that I don’t know anything about and I’m looking at those now to see what I can come up with.”

Story by Ian Williams
Photo by TEDX Adelaide

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