Communicating geology in the digital age

When the news broke on Friday that a 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.

Discussions at the Newcastle British Association meeting

Discussions at the Newcastle British Association meeting - back row L to R: Murchison, Owen; foreground: De la Beche, Sedgwick (tanned face), Phillips (crouching). Right hand group L to R: Lyell, Buckland, unknown, William Smith.

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.

An 1888 lithograph of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa.

An 1888 lithograph of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa.

 

 

In 1815, 8 years after the foundation of the society, Tambora volcano erupted. 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 (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.

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

About Nick

Nick Petford is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Northampton, and an expert in magmatic systems and volcanology. He has appeared in several documentaries on the BBC and Channel 4.
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