General Election 2015 – Science & the party manifestos


It’s just under two weeks until the country goes to the ballot box for the General Election 2015 and the science policy community have been busy reading manifestos, collating pledges and grilling politicians. We’ve collected together some useful articles and sources on science and the general election work in today’s blog post. You can also read more about the general election and find useful resources on the Geological Society website.

All the major political parties have now released their manifestos and they are being pored over by the press and political commentators. The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), of which the Geological Society is a member, has produced a briefing document of the pledges in the main party manifestos relating to science policy. The document details the manifesto commitments to science and engineering from the main parties listed as: The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, Conservative Party, Green Party, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, SNP and UKIP.

CaSE have also put together a list of ‘top ten actions‘ devised for the government to champion STEM and support science and engineering in the next government. These include increasing investment, improving STEM education, and better incorporating science advice into government.

CaSE has collated the manifesto content relating to science and divided the analysis and recommendations into three categories:

  • Investment in science and engineering research

There has been building concern among the scientific community regarding the UK’s level of investment in scinece. When comparing UK science funding as a percentage of GDP to other developed nations, the UK is the lowest of the G8 and the Eurozone. For this reason, investment in science is at the forefront of CaSE’s recommendations.


Image credit: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, obtained from


  • Education and skills for science and engineering

CaSE highlights the need to advance science excellence at the primary level, improve the recognition of STEM apprenticeships and address the funding gap for the costs of science and engineering degrees.

  • Use of science and engineering in government

CaSE is campaigning to improve the availability and use of science advice and knowledge in government: they support the adoption of a Chief Scientific Adviser in each department as well as improved transparency of the science being used to inform policy. One part of this is to ensure that any scientific advice used as evidence is being passed onto the relevant parliamentary committees to improve scrutiny.

Climate and Energy Policy

If you’re interested in what the different parties have to say on Climate and Energy then the Carbon Brief team have put together grid that details what the major parties say regarding pledged climate and energy policy. You can find more information and a link to the document on the Carbon Brief website.

British Science Association

The British Science Association have also put together a series of youtube videos of interviews with science spokespeople from the main political parties. They teamed up with journalist Susan Watts, former science editor of BBC Newsnight, to grill  6 science spokespeople on their priorities for science, how they will make a difference and how their policies will affect you the voters.

You can watch the interview videos on the British Science Association Website.

Further reading

The Guardian view on Britain’s choice 2015: science policy, Editorial

Scienceogram – UK science funding drops below 0.5% of GDP

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The Society and The Map

William Smith's map of England and WalesWilliam Smith’s geological map of England and Wales turns 200 this year.  It was first published just eight years after the foundation of the Geological Society in 1807.  A copy of the map has hung on the wall of the Society since at least 1828, with only a few short breaks for preservation and loan to other organisations, such as its trip to Tate Britain in 2012.  In fact the Society currently owns four copies of William Smith’s map, including the copy that was recently ‘rediscovered‘ this year, while a fifth, early copy of the map has vanished from the Society’s stores.  Smith’s map continues fascinate members of the Society as it has done from the very early days, although the relationship between the Map and the Society has not always been so reverential.

Portrait of William Smith

Portrait of William Smith

Before William Smith published his map, he needed the money to do so.  The base map was engraved by John Cary, a noted cartographer and atlas maker.  Each of the fifteen sheets with geological markings had its own metal plate, which was inked and pressed on paper.  The image produced then had be hand-coloured by water-colourists employed by Cary.  This was not just a matter of painting by numbers as Smith required each colour to be graded from thick to faint demonstrating the dip of each strata across the country.  All of this cost a lot of money and Smith was not a rich man.  To raise the funds he needed, he asked for subscriptions to his map in advance of publication.  Each subscribers would receive a copy when the map was complete.  This was a relatively common practice in the publishing industry of the 19th century, the Kickstarter of its day.  Among the first subscribers to Smith’s map were the nascent Geological Society and George Bellas Greenough, first President of the Geological Society, who had started the process of creating the Society’s own geological map of the country.

In 1815, both the Society and Greenough received their copies of the map.  These were among the first copies produced.  The Society went on to order a second copy, probably in 1816.  Smith was selling large copies mounted on rollers as well as travel copies mounted on linen and folded into a folio for easy transport.  But the first copy the Society received was of the standard format of 15 separate sheets of paper.  It  was added to the collections in the Society’s library to be pored over by geologists for years to come.  The second copy the Society purchased had a different fate.  In 1828, the Council ordered that the copy ‘be varnished by Mr. Gardner and suspended in the Meeting Room of the Society’.

Portrait of George Bellas Greenough

Portrait of George Bellas Greenough

Greenough’s copy of Smith’s map was undergoing careful scrutiny.  Greenough was still hard at work creating his own geological map of England and Wales.  Unlike Smith, Greenough didn’t travel the country to make his own observations.  He had a society full of geologists who could contribute that information for him.  He also had a copy of Smith’s map full of Smith’s own observations.  One sheet of Greenough’s copy still has his handwritten notes, including the telling ‘This sheet can be of no further use to the Geol. Map, Nov 1818′.  Greenough’s map was published in 1819 with funds raised by the gentlemen of Society itself.  This was the same year that William Smith was sent to the King’s Bench debtors’ prison for unpaid debts.

The rift between the early Geological Society and Smith encompassed not only the Map, but also matters of class, money and methodology.  Some in Society argued that Smith’s method of dating strata using the fossils found within them was not particularly noteworthy nor reliable.  Smith was the son of a blacksmith and worked as an engineer and surveyor helping dig canals and construct coastal defences.  The Society’s membership predominately comprised gentlemen of independent means who enjoyed a nice dinner. Smith’s map was dedicated to Sir Joesph Banks, President of the Royal Society.  Banks had opposed the formation of the Geological Society.

Smith's Fossils of the Upper Chalk

Smith’s Fossils of the Upper Chalk

Over the next decade, the fences were mended slowly, culminating in 1831 when the Society awarded William Smith the first Wollaston Medal.  Smith was named ‘the Father of English Geology’ by then President of the Society Adam Sedgwick.  Copies of both Smith’s map and Greenough’s map now hung on walls of the Society’s apartments in Somerset House, albeit in separate rooms.

When Greenough died in 1855, he left his map collection to the Society, including his copy of William Smith’s map, bringing the total number of copies owned to three.  When the Society moved to Burlington House in 1874, the maps came with it.  They were hung on different landings of the main staircase, remaining there until at least 1924 when they were all listed on an inventory of the building.  The problem with mounting a water-coloured map on wall exposed to sunlight, is that it fades over time.  By 1931, both the Smith and Greenough maps had over 100 years of sunlight exposure.  They were getting faint.  The Council resolved to replace them with fresh copies.

Initially the Library was asked to replace the framed copy with its original very early copy, now marked with pencil notes from various researchers through the years.  The Library said no.  However, one Fellow of the Society, Thomas Sheppard was both a Smith historian and a map collector. He’d been making an inventory of the Society’s map collection and had not one, but two copies of the map he was prepared to sell.  The Society bought both for 12 guineas each.  One copy was from the ‘b’ series of maps (Smith started numbering and signing the copies of his map, initially from 1-100, then a1-a100, finally b1 to presumably b100).  It had been bound in an atlas and is still in the Society’s collections.  The second copy was a later version of the map.  John Cary independently produced some copies of the map after Smith’s spell in the King’s Bench prison.  They were unnumbered and unsigned.  This second copy was one of these, probably produced in the 1830s.

Unfortunately the title sheet of this copy was slightly marked and it was thought to be unsuitable for framing and hanging.  This was resolved by swapping the title sheet of the new map with the title sheet of the library’s original copy.  The resulting map was mounted and hung on the staircase, this time with curtains to protect it from the light.  It is this map that still hangs on the wall if you come to visit the Society.  If you look carefully, you can see the title sheet in the top-right corner does not quite match the rest of the map.

At this point the Society owned five copies of the map, but over the middle decades of the 20th century two of them went missing.  By the time of the bicentenary of the Society in 2007, neither the original library copy nor the faded, varnished copy which had first hung on the wall in 1828 could be found.  There were many theories as to the circumstances of their disappearance.  At this time, the Society’s apartments were remodelled.  As part of this reconfiguration, the framed copies of Greenough’s and Smith’s maps were hung side-by-side on the bottom of the main staircase for the first time, finally together nearly 200 years after they produced.

William Smith's map in its red leather portfolio

William Smith’s map in its red leather portfolio

Seven years later, archival assistant Victoria Woodcock was going through drawers of material dating back to the centenary of the Society when she found a large red leather folio with ‘Strata Smith’ written on the spine.  Inside she found a copy of Smith’s map; the original library copy that had been hidden in that drawer for several decades.  Despite being folded in two, the colours have been excellently preserved.  The Society has now conserved this copy, which is now stored safely in the Archive of the Society.  However the faded copy is still missing, presumably disposed of at some point in the 1930s.

The Geological Society has had a somewhat touchy and awkward relationship with Smith’s map over their shared history.  The map serves as a reminder of the divide that existed between Smith and the Society, and of the hardships that Smith endured during his career.  It’s also the iconic image of the story of geology in England and Wales, admired and honoured by members of the Society ever since its creation.  For many non-geologists, if the Society is known for one thing, it’s as the place you can see ‘The Map Changed the World’.  

The stories of Smith’s map and of the early years of the Geological Society are entwined at beginning of geology as a modern scientific discipline.  Perhaps the mixture of reverence along with a hint of shame in the relationship is best summed up by Adam Sedgwick in his speech at the ceremony to bestow the first Wollaston medal on William Smith in 1831.

‘I would appeal to those…who form the strength and ornament of the Society, whether there was any place for doubt or hesitation? Whether we were not compelled, by every motive which the judgement can approve, and the heart can sanction, to perform this act of filial duty, before we though of the claims of any other man, and to place our first honour on the brow of The Father of English Geology…  It was he that gave the plan, and laid the foundations, and erected a portion of the solid walls, by the unassisted labour of his hands…’

‘I think it a high privilege to fill this Chair, on an occasion when we are not met coldly to deliberate on the balance of conflicting claims in which, after all, we may go wrong, and give the prize to one by the injustice to another, but to perform a sacred duty where there is no room for doubt or error, and to record an act of public gratitude, in which the judgement and the feelings are united.’

Thank you to Caroline Lam, Archivist of the Geological Society, for her help in researching this blog.

For more information on William Smith please visit the Geological Society’s online exhibition

William ‘Strata’ Smith – the Father of English Geology


Cox, L.R. “New light on William Smith and his work”, Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society v.25 (1942) p 1-99

Eyles, V.A. & J.M. “On the Different Issues of the First Geological Map of Enlgand and Wales”, Annals of Science v.3 (1938) pp 190-212.

Eyles J.M. “William Smith, a bibliography…”, Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History v.5 (1969) pp 87-109

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Earth’s Climate Evolution – a Geological Perspective on Climate Change

A guest post from Colin Summerhayes, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge

Summerhayes-cover-designBefore we can understand how humans may be changing the climate, we need to establish a baseline. We have one in the geological record of past climate change.

Charles Lyell was among the first to demonstrate, in 1830, that the world had cooled since the Cretaceous. He thought this might reflect the movement of continents across climate zones.

Alfred Wegener put the meat on the bones of Lyell’s moving continents in the 1920s, when he and Wladimir Köppen used data on past climates to position past continents in relation to latitude.

By 1970, plate tectonic theory had vindicated Wegener. We now routinely observe and model past climate change for different time slices.

Lyell knew that celestial mechanics must also play a role in controlling climate through long slow changes in the Earth’s orbit and axial tilt. In the 1860s, James Croll used astronomers’ data on the Earth’s orbit to calculate how much energy Earth received from the Sun for the past 3 million years, and for 1 million years into the future – the first climate prediction.

60 years later Milutin Milankovitch showed that northern hemisphere glaciations were driven by the amount of summer insolation at 65°N. Using computers, André Berger refined Milankovitch’s calculations in the 1970s. That enabled Nick Shackleton, Jim Hays and John Imbrie to show that variations in insolation at 65°N correlated tightly with climate change down deep sea cores – an astonishing advance in understanding how Planet Earth works.


John Tyndall, 1820 – 1893

In 1859, John Tyndall showed that H2O-vapour, CO2, N2O and O3 absorb and re-emit infrared radiation. Hence their variations in past atmospheres could explain variations in past climate. Svante Arrhenius calculated that a fall by 0.6 x modern CO2 would cool the world by 5°C, forcing a glaciation. In 1899, T.C. Chamberlin adopted Arrhenius’s findings to support a theory of climate change reliant upon changes in atmospheric CO2. But not until the 1950s would we know enough about the spectrum of CO2 in air to determine its effects on climate accurately.


Measures or estimates of past levels of atmospheric CO2 were another missing ingredient. In 1978, Hans Oeschger measured CO2 in fossil air from bubbles of ice trapped in ice cores. Now ice cores reveal records of fossil CO2 dating back 800,000 years. By the early 2000s we had also learned how to estimate past levels of CO2 from geological proxies, like the numbers of pores in fossil leaves. Over time, volcanic activity has emitted CO2, which has been absorbed from the atmosphere by chemical weathering. The balance between the two processes, controlled by plate tectonics, is what cooled our climate over the past 50 million years.

Side effects of the 'Little Ice Age': The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, attributed to Henry Raeburn, 1790s

Side effects of the ‘Little Ice Age': The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, attributed to Henry Raeburn, 1790s

CO2 is not the only important greenhouse gas. Warming the ocean evaporates H2O as well as releasing CO2. The two act together to amplify the effects of orbital change. In the past 4000 years, orbital energy declined, leading Earth into a neoglacial period that peaked in the Little Ice Age. Subtle changes in solar output, detected by 14C and 10Be isotopes, caused minor variability about the underlying orbital trend of global cooling. Part of the reason for the exceptional cold of the Little Ice Age was a period of minimal solar output.

Where are we now? Orbitally, we are still in the Little Ice Age. Solar output is no different from what it was in the 1780s in the Little Ice Age. Since 1990 it has been declining while temperature continued rising.

Increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations from 1958–2013

Increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations from 1958–2013

Only CO2 has changed a lot, rising dramatically since about 1770, due to our emissions. The associated warming has taken temperatures above the natural climate envelope of the past 2000 years. Ice cores show that whenever temperatures went 2-3°C above today’s, in association with CO2, sea level rose by 4-9m. And when CO2 went up by more than today’s levels, the ocean acidified, dissolving carbonate sediments.

We have been warned. And this has nothing to do with fancy numerical climate models!  As Bryan Lovell says – you can’t argue with a rock.


  • You can find out more from ‘Earth’s Climate Evolution’, published by WILEY. For a 20% pre-production discount, use the code EES14 and contact WILEY at
  • Colin Summerhayes will present this geological perspective on climate change in the GSL’s London Lectures, on April 15th. Find out more from the GSL’s ‘Statement on Climate Change’ on the GSL web site at
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Geology and the General Election – Voice of the Future


House of Parliament – Source Tony Hisgett, Wikimedia Commons

Following the dissolution of Parliament on 30 March the wheels of the various election campaigns are now fully in motion and election promises and party lines abound. Here at the Geological Society we have put together some resources which Fellows and members of the public may find useful when considering the economic and societal importance of geology (and science more widely) in the context of the upcoming election. You can find these on our website: there will also be a short series of blog posts on election-relevant topics, starting with the recent Voice of the Future event!

Voice of the Future

Now in its 4th year, Voice of the Future is an event hosted by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee which this year took place on 4 March at Portcullis House in Westminster.

Just a bit of background on the Select Committees and their work: a select committee is made up of parliamentary members, around 10-20 in number and they are appointed to scrutinize particular areas of the Government’s work. The committee’s main role is to investigate and collect data and evidence on a given issue and report on their findings, this occurs in the form of inquiries on specific areas of work. For example the Geological Society often responds to inquiries and consultations carried out by this committee – see our Consultations page for examples of recent responses. The Science and Technology Select Committee has a remit to examine the work of the Government Office for Science, which translates into a variety of topics.

The committee, in collaboration with the Society of Biology , on behalf of a number or Learned Societies including the Geological Society, organised the event to promote engagement with young scientists, engineers and researchers about the issues that matter to them. The layout of the event is similar to a Committee evidence session except that the scientists sit in the horseshoe where the committee would normally sit and they question the committee in the witness seats on issues of their choice. This is designed to give young scientists and researchers a taste of how the Parliament and Government functions and just one of the ways that scientific evidence can feed into policy making.


Members of the Science and Technology Committee answering questions. © Society of Biology


Young scientists from a variety of different research areas were invited to the event and to submit questions to the committee. The questions were then divided among the 4 panels that were arranged for the day. Questions to the committee were on wide-ranging topics such as science and the media, reforms on the practical element of science A levels and GCSEs, understanding of risk, science spending, international development and women in STEM.

Walport 2 smaller

Chief Scientific Adviser Mark Walport answers questions from the panel of young scientists. © Society of Biology

Panel 1 – Professor Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser

Panel 2 – Members of Parliament on the Science and Technology Select Committee

Panel 3 – Liam Byrne MP, Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Panel 4 – Rt Hon Greg Clark MP (Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities)

The Geological Society put forward 3 young Geoscience PhD students to represent the Society, we caught up with 2 of them about their thoughts on the day. Firstly from Emily White, a PhD student studying greenhouse emissions at the University of Bristol:

I was excited to attend Voice of the Future because for a while I’ve been interested in learning more about how politics and policy works, and where better than in the House of Commons itself! I think it is important to engage with these things as a scientist, especially if your field, like mine, clearly has implications for decision-making.

And when it comes to continuing to engage with policy Emily added:

What I got most out of the day was a much better understanding of ways in which scientists should get involved with politics. For example how important it is to communicate with your local MP, both about how your own research affects society and about the decisions being made in parliament that affect science policy. We also heard about how scientists can get involved in the political process by submitting a response to the Science and Technology Select Committee’s call for information before they finalise a report on a particular topic. I felt that the MPs present were really encouraging us as young scientists to be aware of these different channels of communication and to use them if we felt we had something to say.

And secondly from Hazel Gibson, an interdisciplinary PhD Student at Plymouth studying geology, cognition and communication:


Hazel Gibson attending on behalf of The Geological Society. © Society of Biology


Firstly, and this has to be said right off the bat, it is an election year and as such the focus of all of the MPs was on the forthcoming General Election. What was interesting to me, was how much some MPs (particularly Liam Byrne) were able to put this aside and not use the time for party political grandstanding, but to actually answer our questions. The question I was assigned (questions were designated from participant submissions although they were not all matched with the person who submitted the question), about investment in the UK for research and innovation, was a pretty broad question to answer, but many of the questions around gender in science, international students, investment in the knowledge economy and the place of science in politics were very interesting. One of the things that I learnt and was surprised by was that most of the ‘actual’ politics seems to be done by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, whose elected chair, Andrew Miller used to work as a geology technician! The noticeable feature of the Select Committee was that all members seemed to put their Party politics to one side and focus on action – they were very positive about the future of science in the UK and wanted to work together to make it happen. The final message from all the MPs was ‘tell us your science’, so make sure you speak up in this election and get your science front and centre with your local MP.

You can read more about Hazel’s work and her experience at Voice of the Future on her blog.

For more information on Voice of the Future and accounts of the day, see the Society of Biology website or you can watch the recorded event on BBC iPlayer. 

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Never a Dahl moment


Dahl at the height of the 1975 craze for pet rocks.

So farewell then, Gary Dahl (1936-2015)

Gary Ross Dahl, who died on March 23, was an advertising copywriter and advertising agency owner who became a millionaire on the strength of a six-month fad dating from 1975.  Those of us who remember that year, especially if we happen to be geologists, will recall the craze which he invented after hearing his friends complaining about their pets – the ‘Pet Rock’.

Thus began a business idea – selling small rocks in perforated boxes, complete with a 32-page care and training manual (the real product).

The pet rock, a smooth beach pebble, came on a bed of straw, complete with carry-case (perforated) and a 32-page instruction manual.

The pet rock, a smooth beach pebble, came on a bed of straw, complete with carry-case (perforated) and a 32-page instruction manual.

What very few people know is that Gary Dahl was put up for Honorary Fellowship of the Society in recognition of his efforts to make rocks more popular and generally adding to the gaiety of nations.  The motion, put by Professor Dick Selley (Imperial College) was, sadly, defeated.

Dahl, like many successful creators, came to have a love-loathe attitude to the Pet Rock.  For the rest of his life he received the dubious attention os ‘would-be inventors’, wanting advice.  As he told AP in 1988: “There’s a bizarre lunatic fringe who feel I owe them a living.  Sometimes I look back and wonder if my life wouldn’t have been simpler if I hadn’t done it.”

You can read more about the pet rock here and about its creator .

Read his NY Times obit:

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Was this the first Royal geology field trip?

Selley 1

Dick Selley gives the Earl of Wessex a safety briefing before entering the caves. © Royston Williamson.

Dick Selley (of this parish) has taken HRH Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, on a geology field trip to study the Folkestone Beds of the Cretaceous Lower Greensand.  When a trip to Dorking was being arranged for HRH, the EoW said that he wanted to ‘do something ‘quirky’’.   Thus, an expedition to study the Lower Greensand in Dorking’s famous South Street caves was suggested and enacted.

After the obligatory Health and Safety briefing, Prince Edward entered the caves. The party included the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Surrey, the Prince’s Lady-in-Waiting, and his security detail.  Dick took the Prince and his entourage along the various galleries, once used for storing local and foreign wines, and descended 20 metres to the ‘Mystery Chamber’. Here Dick pontificated on the cross-bedding and the ferruginous flood mark with shows the depth to which the chamber was flooded by a temporary rise in the water table. This event can be dated on external evidence as occurring between the late 17th– early 18th Century.

Ferruginous veneer

The ‘Mystery Chamber’ showing cross-bedding and the ferruginous veneer which, terminating a few centimetres above the bench, marking the depth to which the chamber was flooded in the late 17th – Early 18th © Royston Williamson

HRH is now up to speed on the geotechnical properties of ‘locked sands’, the palaeo-hydrology of the River Mole catchment, the formation of cross-bedding, the significance of carstone as witch repellent, and the diagnostic features of tidal sand waves.

We believe that this is the first time that a member of the Royal family has been on a geology field trip.  HRH Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, despite being admitted to Fellowship on 30 May 1849, is thought never to have ventured into the field or raised a hammer in anger.  (That is to say there is no known record of such an event – we would be delighted to be corrected.).  We admit that it is also possible that HRH Princess Anne may once have been exposed to some geology on field trips, as part of her ‘O’ Level Geography course.


  • Selley, RC 2006. Dorking Caves Guide. Petravin Press. Dorking. 13pp.
  • Selley RC (In Press) Dorking Caves: History: Mystery and Geology. Dorking Museum.
Posted in History, Miscellaneous, Out in the field, Science communication | Leave a comment

The 2015 Great Geobakeoff

The Great Geobakeoff is back!

Last year, we were astonished, delighted, and a little bit scared by your levels of enthusiasm and commitment to the geobakeoff challenge. As Easter approaches, we’ve decided to up the ante for the second annual Great Geobakeoff.

logosAs the more geologically engaged of you will have noticed, 2015 sees two important themes in the world of geology, both of which lend themselves to baking adaptation. It is both the 200th anniversary of William Smith’s amazing geological map, and the Year of Mud.


We couldn’t decide which of these themes was more suitable.

With this in mind, we present….

The 2015 Great Geobakeoff: Mud with a Smattering of Smith*

morganOnce again, at stake are our much coveted limited edition geological USB hammers, plus a Mystery Prize….

USBThe rules are unchanged – we’ll award points for completion of the challenges below, and there will be ten winners.

10 bonus points, as ever, for incorporating an edible rock hammer USB into your design.

You have until 5 May, to incorporate the Easter weekend and another bank holiday weekend. Submit your images/videos/other evidence to @geolsoc using #geobakeoff, or email them to

Your challenges are as follows….


10 points: Mud stone cake. You get the idea. Basically, a brown tray bake. Sort of like last year’s sandstone layer, only…muddier. Feel free to get creative with your mudstones though!


lonely tree20 points: Mud cracks. All and any patterns will be accepted – the more authentic the better. We will also award extra bonus points for addition of a lonely tree, as in those inspirational memes that keep popping up on Facebook.


lahar30 points: Lahar cake

Soup up your average volcano cake with a volcanic mudflow (or lahar) down the outside.  Again, improvisation IS welcome! Extra points for including the water source (think crater lakes and glaciers) and also if you can send us a video of the lahar (chocolate) moving down the side of your cake!

40 points: Mississippi mud pie. Clearly this had to be in there! Feel free to follow a traditional recipe to make the cake, but for these 40 precious points you need to go one step further. We want to see the top of the cake decorated with either a depiction of the geology of Mississippi State or a birds eye view of the muddy Mississippi delta.



Smith cake50 points: The Hidden William Smith Fossil Preserved in Mud Cake. We’re quite excited about this one. Combining as it does both of our chosen themes, it promises to be either spectacular or vaguely confusing.

Plus, an exhaustive google image search suggests that, whilst there are many ‘hidden’ cakes, no one has yet attempted to conceal a fossil within a cake. BE THE FIRST.


60 points: Cross Section Cake. Getting into the swing of the William Smith theme now, we thought his London Snowdon cross section could make for some spectacular geobaking. We’re not quite sure how you’ll pull it off, but we have faith in you, geobakers.

composite section reduced



70 points: William Smith County Map Cake. Pick a county of your choice! Bake it! What could be simpler? We of course require the correct shape as well as general patterning… Find images of all the county maps on our website.

Extra points if you go for Oxfordshire, it looks fiendish…



Matthew McConnaughey in the 2012 drama thriller film ‘Mud.’  70s Glam Rock band ‘Mud.’ Scientifically inaccurate scenes in Pompeii, Dante’s Peak, or any other film involving lots of mud. Basically, anything goes.




tunnel90 points: Tunnel Cake. Though it’s mostly mud themed, we think William Smith would have approved of this one. Please engineer us a tunnel of some kind, in cake form. Obviously that alone is not enough for the full 90 points – we’re after detailed infrastructure. Possibly multiple tunnels, or at surface details. (Crossrail station? Escalator? Tiny commuters? That place in Harry Potter they got to by disappearing down toilets?)

jurassic-park-toilet-death-scene100 points: The Jurassic Park Toilet Death Scene. In honour of the impending arrival of Jurassic World (WE ARE SO EXCITED), we’re staying with the Jurassic Park theme for our 100 point challenge.

Last year, you dazzled us with hatching velociraptor cakes. This year, we want no less than the iconic toilet death scene. Yes, it’s not entirely on theme, but we’re pretty sure there’s some mud in that picture somewhere. MAKE IT HAPPEN, GEOBAKERS.

And in case this all sounds rather demanding, rest assured the Geological Society staff are holding our own bakeoff, evidence of which to follow. It remains to be seen whether any of us can rise above the 10 point mud rock level…




*As you can appreciate, we worked very hard on that title.

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Sir David Attenborough launches the year of William Smith

William Smith 2015 FINAL02







Monday 23rd was the birthday of William Smith – ‘father of English Geology’ and creator of the world’s first nationwide geological map.

It was also a special day at the Geological Society – the launch of the year long celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Smith’s 1815 geological map of England and Wales.

Sir David Attenborough with the newly unveiled Green Plaque at 15 Buckingham Street

Sir David Attenborough with the newly unveiled Green Plaque at 15 Buckingham Street

We were thrilled to be joined by Sir David Attenborough to mark the occasion, beginning with the unveiling of a Green Plaque at 15 Buckingham Street, where William Smith lived between 1804 and 1819.

It was during that time that Smith carried out much of his work on his famous map, publishing the first copies in 1815.

‘I truly believe that William Smith is one of the great thinkers of the nineteenth century, and he deserves celebration’ said Sir David as he unveiled the plaque.

I managed to catch up with him before the unveiling to ask about what William Smith and geology means to him.

Following the unveiling, we held an evening event at the Geological Society, at which the first viewings of our newly discovered, rare first edition copy of William Smith’s map were held.

Tom Sharpe

Tom Sharpe talks visitors through the map

News of the discovery was widely reported by the BBC and other news sites.

The new copy of the map was discovered during an audit of the Society’s archives, by then Archive Assistant Victoria Woodcock.

‘The map was found among completely unrelated material, so at first I didn’t realise the significance of what I’d uncovered’ she says. ‘Once we had worked out that it was an early copy of one of the earliest geological maps ever made, I was astonished. It’s the kind of thing that anyone working in archives dreams of, and definitely the highlight of my career so far!’


The event also featured a demonstration of by Peter Wigley. The website, the largest online collection of Smith maps, allows users to view the maps in 3D, compare editions and as overlays with modern geological maps.

The William Smith Bicentennial celebrations are continuing all year, with a range of events, exhibitions and meetings. Including….

  • Michael McKimm reading from 'Map'

    Michael McKimm reading from ‘Map’

    On 9 April, the Society is hosting the launch of ‘Map’, an anthology of poems inspired by William Smith and his work, edited by Michael McKimm, who works in the Society’s library.

    The collection includes poems by former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Penelope Shuttle and Helen Mort. Audiences on Monday had a preview when Michael gave a reading from the collection.

  • The Society’s History of Geology Group is organising two flagship William Smith meetings this year. The first, on 23-24 April, is on ‘200 Years of Smith’s Map’. Registration is still open, with Fellows and non Fellows both welcome.
  • The second William Smith meeting will be held on 5 November, focusing on the future of geological mapping.

For more information and archive materials related to William Smith, visit our online exhibition.

A copy of William Smith’s famous map hangs in our entrance hall, beside the Society’s own 1819 map – members of the public are welcome to drop in to have a look during opening hours. The newly discovered map won’t be making too many public appearances, to preserve its amazing original colours, but there are opportunities to view it during the April William Smith meeting, and at a public event to be announced in the summer.

Many thanks to Sir David and everyone who helped us to launch the celebrations on Monday!

Sir David Attenborough and Victoria Woodcock with the newly discovered map

Sir David Attenborough and Victoria Woodcock with the newly discovered map



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‘A love letter to the scenery of the Jurassic Coast’ – the geology of Broadchurch

“East Cliff Westbay – – 1234069″ by Pam Goodey. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Broadchurch Detective Show – Image Credit: Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Did Joe kill Danny? Do we care about Sandbrook? What’s with all the bluebells? Will Alec make it through those super tense court scenes alive?

On Monday, at least some of these questions should be answered as the slightly topsy-turvy second series of Broadchurch (or so says the press…) comes to a close, and the nation begins twiddling its thumbs waiting to hear about a third series.

Those iconic cliffs, however, as rocks always do, will LIVE ON through good Broadchurch and bad, as well as everything else (with the exception of heavy storms and sea level rise.)

The show’s famous cliffs play host to many key plot points. They are where Danny Latimer meets a grizzly end, and Susan may or may not have seen her son Nigel carrying the body of (you get the picture).  In real life, they are the stunningly beautiful, endlessly instagrammable cliffs at East Cliff, West Bay in Dorset, and we thought the closing of the series would be a good opportunity to find out more about them….

East Cliff forms part of West Bay, a small town and resort in Dorset, part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. West Bay is also within the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and East Beach (the beach below East Cliff) is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.


Chesil Beach in Dorset by Jim – Flickr: Chesil Beach – Dorset.. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

East Beach (where much intense character contemplation occurs) forms the most westerly end of the famous Chesil Beach, a barrier beach which continues on another 18 miles out towards the Isle of Portland. A barrier beach is defined as a sand ridge that rises slightly above the surface of the sea and runs roughly parallel to the shore, from which it is separated by a lagoon. This kind of feature is formed by longshore drift. The feature is thought to have been initially formed from sandy deposits in Lyme Bay that were eroded and driven onshore. It is now considered a closed system with no replenishment, so the beach is very sensitive to changes in environment. 

The West Bay area sits within the Dorset coastline; one of the most visited and studied coastlines in the world. Through 95 miles of coastline, it exposes rocks from the beginning of the Triassic all the way through the Jurassic and up to the end of the Cretaceous, spanning the entire Mesozoic era with amazingly well preserved fossils.

The famous cliffs themselves are made up of the Bridport Sands, formed in the Toarcian Age (183 million years ago) of the early Jurassic. The prominent bands are caused by the alternating hard and soft layers of rock, which represent a major rhythm in sedimentation. The distinctive yellow colour is formed by the oxidation of fine pyrite grains in the rocks, causing the formation of limonite, an iron oxide-hydroxide caused by weathering.

The cliff is capped by a thin layer of inferior oolite composed of predominantly calcium carbonate formed from ooids – grains made of up concentric layers. These rocks were formed in a warm, shallow Jurassic Sea.

Moody broadchurch

The many moods of Broadchurch… Image Credit: “East Cliff, near West Bay – – 1234062″ by Roger Cornfoot. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons and “East Cliff, West Bay, Dorset – – 1288467″ by Stacey Harris. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons



Wellsites M and F, oil wells on the Goathorn Peninsula in the Wytch Farm oilfield – Image Credit: by Pterre – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

These rocks have also been faulted, which has led to some interesting structures in the area. The Epe Mouth fault, which occurred during the Cimmerian Orogeny (200-150 million years ago) is aligned east west and can be seen at West Cliff, with a vertical displacement of around 200 metres.

The Bridport Sandstones have been faulted below sea level and form part of the Wytch Farm Oil Field in nearby Purbeck. Wytch Farm is largely concealed by the coniferous forest on Wytch Heath and has remaining oil and gas expected to last until 2020-2025. The Bridport reservoir was the first discovered in the area and is located in the same Jurassic sands that we see at East Cliff in West bay. For this reason, the area is also used for educational trips to give students a first-hand opportunity to study oil reservoir rocks.  

The cliff, as the show frequently reminds us, is not the most stable. Every now and then it suffers from failure due to storms and adverse weather, which can result in episodic rock falls. With continued climate and sea level change, this coastline as we know it won’t be with us forever.

If you need any more convincing about how wonderful this area of Dorset is, then you can read all about what the cast and crew had to say about working in West Bay. Suffice to say that Chris Chibnall, creator and writer, described the choice to film Broadchurch there as “a love letter to the scenery of the Jurassic Coast”.

The idea for this post came from our Director of Finance, Jonathan, just one of many GSL Broadchurch fans!

  • This post was amended on 24.2.2015.
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Happy Darwin Day!

Portrait of Charles Robert Darwin, elected a Fellow of the Geological Society on 30 November 1836 (no.1127). Source: Geological Society Library Flickr

Portrait of Charles Robert Darwin, elected a Fellow of the Geological Society on 30 November 1836 (no.1127). Source: Geological Society Library Flickr

Today is Darwin’s birthday, and A global celebration of science and reason. Of course, here in the Geology Castle, every day is a global celebration of science and reason, but we’re happy for any excuse to celebrate the great man. (And post more pictures of his crocheted alter ego.)

As we’re always keen to point out, in an age where science was less compartmentalised, Darwin was as much a geologist, perhaps more so, than anything else. He joined the Geological Society in 1836, at the tender age of 27.

In July of that year, still aboard The Beagle, Darwin wrote to his old friend and tutor, John Stevens Henslow;

“I am very anxious to belong to the Geolog: Society. I do not know, but I suppose, it is necessary to be proposed some time before being balloted for, if such is the case, would you be good enough to take the proper preparatory steps”

As our Archivist Caroline attests, joining was a more complicated business in the nineteenth century than it is now.

“To become a Fellow, a candidate had to be first proposed and recommended by at least three existing members, one of whom should personally know the prospective member. The proposal was in the form of an admission certificate, usually completed by the main proposer, which would be displayed in one of the public rooms of the Society.”

Henslow duly took the proper preparatory steps, and wrote to the Geological Society, proposing Darwin’s membership.

L-R-2_174 Henslow, J S 8 Sep 1836 copy

Charles Darwin’s Fellowship nomination letter. Source: Geological Society archives













Henslow’s letter came with an application form, which he filled out himself.

The primary proposer is Henslow, Adam Sedgwick is second, followed by Hutton (possibly Thomas), John Forbes Royle, William Clift and Woodbine Parish.

Charles Darwin's fellowship application form.

Charles Darwin’s fellowship application form. Source: Geological Society archives



Darwin peruses his biography.

Darwin peruses his biography.

And the rest, of course, is history. Darwin was a Fellow of the Geological Society for the remainder of his life, and served as Secretary between 1838 – 1841. He has recently been reincarnated in crocheted form, and continues to be one of our best loved and well known former Fellows.

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