When the news broke on Friday that a new Icelandic eruption could be on the way ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-15995845a new Icelandic eruption could be on the way), it didn’t take long for it to spread.
This hasn’t always been the case. In its early years, the physics of geological communication was simple – involving nothing more than oscillations of pressure transmitted through a gas – talking.
‘We are forming a little talking Geological Dinner Club, of which I hope you will be a member’
wrote Humphrey Davy on November 13 1807, to WH Pepys.
Among those present at that dinner, held at the Freemasons Tavern in Great Queen Street, were Authur Aikin, James Frank, Davy, Pepys and Greenough. This was a time of exceptional scientific discovery, fuelled by controversies, excitement and professional skulduggery. At this time there we just a handful of professional geologists but knowledge of geology was relatively widespread and “men of culture and wide sympathies” developed the science.
And as the young society began to flourish so the heroes emerged – amongst them Buckland, Lyell, Murchison, Sedgwick, Sabine and De La Beche. Mass communication this was not; rather a rarefied conversation between the elite for the elite in a world where science and religion were locked in combat for supremacy. Some things never change.
In 1815, 8 years after the foundation of the society, Tambora volcano erupted (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Tambora). Today, very few outside the profession have ever heard of Tambora, although a few more may have marvelled at the paintings of Turner depicting sunsets that capture the atmospheric effects of the VEI 7 eruption. But who has not heard of Krakatoa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krakatoa) - famously East of Java according to the Disney Corporation – that erupted in 1883? What happened in the intervening 68 years since Tambora, an eruption many times more powerful?
Communication – not through the spoken word in close proximity but the development of a new and revolutionary technology – the Telegraph. It is wrong to imply that the internet was the first to network the planet globally. It was the cable network that linked Jakarta with Paris and London, that allowed the news of a volcanic eruption far far away to make the front pages of the morning editions across Europe.
And since that time we have not even stopped to pause. The Wireless, television – for the last 80 years these technologies have been the dominant mass communication tools. But today they themselves are being challenged by new and disruptive technologies. The internet yes, but only as a vehicle for social networking sites. Facebook, Blogs, Twitter, words not invented 10 years ago now rule the communications roost. And the society must move, as it is doing, to embrace these forms of communication, and stay relevant in the 21st century. In my own small way I have made a contribution – the first to embed a video in the Geological Society’s blog, in this case a summit eruption on Stromboli http://blog.geolsoc.org.uk/2011/09/28/filming-on-location-etna-stromboli-and-smelly-tshirts/
How would our founding fathers have reacted? Would “men of culture and wide sympathies” have embraced Web 2.0 or recoiled in horror? We will never know. But imagine if Darwin had taken an iPhone on the Beagle. Or Hutton had reported his observations on Siccar point live to the Society on Skype. Technology offers our science unparalleled ways to communicate to audiences across the world in ways unimaginable to our Founding Fathers. And so it is that future communications technologies will be delivered in ways unimaginable to us now.
In his address after being appointed Woodwarian chair of geology at Cambridge, Sedgwick claimed he would leave “no stone unturned” in his pursuit of his science. I suggest we, as a learned Society, leave no technology unturned in our pursuit to communicate the science we love to the widest of all possible audiences.
Adapted from my after dinner speech at the Geological Society’s Founders Day dinner, held on 10 November, and first published on http://blog.geolsoc.org.uk/2011/12/05/communicating-geology-in-the-digital-age/ on 5 December 2011
It is hard sometimes to overestimate the amount of time spent faffing around when making a documentary (or any kind of filming for that matter).
I have just returned from being on location in southern Italy making a documentary commissioned by National Geographic and produced by Pioneer Productions, a UK firm run out of London and set up by an ex geologist. The series, a three parter, will ( probably) be called Birth of Europe and follows on from Birth of Britain screened in spring 2011.
The series is themed around Water, Ice and Fire. I am doing the Fire bit which, not surprisingly, focusses on volcanoes. In Europe that means two places – Iceland and The Med. The latter is our brief, with the usual suspects on show: Etna, Stromboli and Vesuvius.
And therein lies the first problem – these volcanoes have pretty much been done to death. Finding something new to say about them is a real challenge. In part, the industry relies on the fact that viewers have little or no recall of previous similar shows and are drawn in by the spectacle. That bit rests with the director and film crew who do know what has been done before and feel pressure to go the extra mile (literally) to get that money shot that makes the series.
But at times even Nature herself seems to have had enough of these intrusions. An unseasonal storm ruined best laid plans to film on Etna (although we did manage to get some good stuff), but I had to pretend that the lower slopes of Stromboli are the former, and don the same stinking t-shirt from Sunday to finish the shot. Oh well, it’s only basalt! Then there is the human factor, things get lost, batteries go flat, wires fail to connect, taxis are late, language problems, retakes, presenters screw up, more retakes, storm on way, camera lens lost, too dark, too light, too windy, too hot/wet/cold (delete as appropriate) – all in the knowledge that at the end of a 12 hour day we might have between 5 and 7 minutes of useable TV.
It is mostly hard physical work and we take risks that sometimes feel reckless. And here’s the best bit: I don’t even get paid, unless you count the 25 euros per dium. So why do I do it? Probably flattery and vanity have something to do with it, but that’s not the whole story. Despite my desk-bound day job, at heart I am still a geologist, and I miss the field work, the excitement of seeing nature at work. Beyond that, I still believe in the importance of science communication in a world where irrationalism and anti-science rhetoric appear to be on the rise.
This blog was originally published on the Geographical Society of London blog (28/09/11) – http://geolsoc.wordpress.com/2011/09/28/filming-on-location-etna-stromboli-and-smelly-tshirts/
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