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



Posted in Events, History, Library, News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘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.
Posted in Out in the field, Science communication | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Events, History, Library | Tagged | 2 Comments

Terra Infirma: What has salt tectonics ever done for us?

Folded salt in a Sicilian mine

Folded salt in a Sicilian mine

Our London Lecture series ended on a high last year with Imperial College’s Chis Jackson explaining why we should all be halophiles. For those who missed out, it’s now available to watch again on our YouTube channel. Or you can listen to our podcast with Chris on why he thinks salt is the greatest of all rocks:

Says Chris:

“Salt is ubiquitous. It appears on dining tables around the world. Food manufacturers sneak it into our food…and then we get told off by the Department of Health for eating too much of it!

Giant ancient salt structures buried offshore Brazil

Giant ancient salt structures buried offshore Brazil

In this talk I will demonstrate that salt is not simply for sprinkling liberally on fish ‘n’ chips or for de-icing roads. I will demonstrate that salt is a unique and grossly underappreciated rock type, living in the dark, dank shadows of its more glamorous carbonate, sandstone and mudstone neighbours.

I think this lack of recognition is unfair. Salt has been at the centre of the global expansive of mankind, acting as the key ingredient in the preservation of food. Furthermore, salt is unusual in that, one minute, it sits still like any good rock but then, having turned your back for a moment, flows like a fluid.

Salt miners in Ethiopia

Salt miners in Ethiopia

This strange behaviour can occur both on the Earth’s surface and also kilometres below ground. With a few exceptions, carbonates and clastics can’t do that. They just sit there. Like well-behaved rocks should. Salts ability to flow leads to it forming some of the most complex and beautiful geological structures observed on the Earth.

From an applied perspective, salt is one of the economically most important rock types on Earth, forming the seals to super-giant hydrocarbon accumulations in every corner of the globe. In this talk I will celebrate salt and, in short, in the course of 45 minutes, I will try and convert the audience to ‘halophiles’ (a.k.a. ‘salt worshipers’). But remember, too much salt can be bad for your health…”

Further Reading:

Hudec, M.R., and Jackson, M. P. A., 2007, Terra infirma: Understanding salt tectonics: Earth Science Reviews, v. 82, p. 1–28.

Kurlansky, M., 2003, Salt: A World History. Penguin Books, pp498.,9171,925341-2,00.html

Posted in Events, Science communication | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Photo of the month!

This submission from Peter Dolan (familiar to Geoscientist readers as a kerbstone detective) has inspired us to establish Photo of the Month. All submissions gratefully received by email (, twitter, facebook or any other means at your disposal, and we’ll post the best one here each month.

January’s photo of the month*:


Weather forecasting stone on the exterior wall of the Glaciarium (a museum dedicated to glaciers) on the outskirts of El Calafate in southern Patagonia – Argentina.


We are now accepting submissions for February! There will be no theme – other than photos which feature geology in some way, and make us smile. To give you an idea, here are some recent subs which fit that description….

(*admittedly a few days post January…)

Dinosaurs on parade (via @laurennotes)

Dinosaurs on parade (via @laurennotes)

'Cross Bedding' (Jack Finch)

‘Cross Bedding’ (Jack Finch)
























Limestone pavement near Malham (from Mark Godden for #100geosites)

Limestone pavement near Malham (from Mark Godden for #100geosites)


Posted in Miscellaneous | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Pre-School Palaeontology: Science Learning for the Under Fives

A guest post from Science from the Start’s Laura Hobbs..

“Under-fives tend to be an underserved audience for informal science learning, but even the youngest babies are using their senses to learn about the world around them all the time – they’re never too young!

Science from the Start

Comparing the size of hands to a life-sized triceratops footprint

Comparing the size of hands to a life-sized triceratops footprint

Continue reading

Posted in Education, Events | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

2015 – the Year of Mud!

We’re kicking of a series of themed years, by declaring 2015 the year of mud, mud, glorious mud! Geological Society Council Member Lucy Slater explains…

YEAR OF MUD_460 Continue reading

Posted in Events, Science communication | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Calling all amateur fossil collectors! Geologists appeal after new species of Ichthyosaur discovered in Scotland

A geologist at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences has encouraged fossil collectors to come forward with their finds, after a new species of marine reptile, described as ‘the size of a motor boat’, was discovered from fossils found on the Isle of Skye.

Dearcmhara shawcrossi image c. Todd Marshall

Dearcmhara shawcrossi image c. Todd Marshall

Continue reading

Posted in News | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Door 24: We wish you a Merry (Mary Anning) Christmas

Twenty Four Continue reading

Posted in Advent calendar | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Door 23: The Heart of a King

Twenty three Continue reading

Posted in Advent calendar | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments