Geoscientists don’t appear all that often in films or novels, but when they do, they usually leave an impression.
Presenting a completely subjective round-up of the ten best fictional geoscientists…
Dr Alan Grant (Jurassic Park, 1993)
Played by Sam Neill in Spielberg’s ground-breaking film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel, Dr Grant is brought in to risk assess a hurricane-beset island populated with dinosaurs genetically engineered from the DNA recovered from mosquitos preserved in amber. This is the film that continues to assure me that we can one day clone William “strata” Smith from the lock of hair on display in the lobby here at the Geological Society (seriously, what better way to celebrate the upcoming bicentenary of Smith’s first geological map of England and Wales than by bringing back the man himself?).
Dr Grant is the perfect screen scientist: part sceptic, part iconoclast, part Boy Scout. During the course of the film we watch Grant’s curmudgeonliness melt away as his childlike wonder at dinosaurs is reawakened; and then we see it reasserted when the dinosaurs try to eat him. A lot. But it’s not just Velociraptors that Dr Grant has to contend with. He also faces the everyday concerns of the real life academic: the stress of securing research funding; anxiety about keeping up with new technologies; and insecurity about the size of his publication output (his book, we are told, is not as big as the other palaeontologists’…).
Dr David Huxley (Bringing Up Baby, 1938)
Surely everyone’s other favourite dinosaur expert, Dr David Huxley is the hapless palaeontologist played by Cary Grant in the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby. (And the echo of Cary Grant’s name in that of Dr Alan Grant isn’t the only thing Jurassic Park owes to Bringing Up Baby…). Dr Huxley has spent years putting together the skeleton of a Brontosaurus (um, shouldn’t that be Apatosaurus, Dr Huxley…?) only to be confounded at the last moment by the intrusion of ditzy heiress Susan Vance (an exquisite Katherine Hepburn) and her pet leopard, Baby. As David desperately struggles to keep hold of the final piece of the dino puzzle – the elusive “intercostal clavicle” – and a hoped for million dollar grant for his museum, Susan throws his life into chaos, and hilarity ensues. Who could forget Cary Grant bedecked in fluffy negligee, leaping into the air and shouting, “I just went gay all of a sudden!”? What geologist hasn’t had a day like that?
Dick Callum (Pigeon Post, 1936)
Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons may be more famous for messing about in boats, but in one of my favourite books in the series the Walker, Blackett and Callum children leave the water behind and take to the Lakeland fells to set up the Swallows, Amazons and D’s Mining Company (that’s SAD Mining, for short). Bespectacled Dick Callum is their chief scientist: equipped with John Phillips’ Manual of Metallurgy he instructs them as they prospect for gold, mine the ore, and attempt to smelt an ingot in their home-made blast furnace. Drawing on his friendship with the prospector Oscar Gnosspellius, who appears in Pigeon Post as rival prospector “Squashy Hat”, Ransome invests this adventure with the same realism and attention to detail he normally gives to sailing. What’s more, there’s something here for the hydrogeologists amongst you too: the children also turn their hands to a spot of dowsing…
Dr Reneé Seitchek (Strong Motion, 1992)
Long before most of us felt the first tremblings of the fracking debate, Jonathan Franzen’s 1992 novel Strong Motion was teaching us about injection wells and induced seismicity. When Massachusetts is hit by a spate of minor earthquakes, Harvard seismologist Dr Reneé Seitchek suspects they might be caused by petrochemical company Sweeting-Aldren illegally disposing of toxic waste by pumping it deep underground. Both Dr Seitchek and Jonathan Franzen have done their research, and hard scientific matter is folded into the narrative like clues in a whodunit; but Reneé is something of an accidental hero, research that begins as simple academic curiosity leads her into dark and dangerous territory. And not only does she have to contend with corporate crime, Dr Seitchek also finds herself the target of an anti-abortion Christian commune that believes the earthquakes are being meted out by God as divine punishment. Here is a geologist who unites scientific rationalism with ethical idealism, the unquestioning belief that with knowledge comes the responsibility to speak truth to power, no matter the personal cost.
Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood, 2007)
Daniel Day-Lewis won just about all the awards going for his portrayal of the monomaniacal oilman Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! The film There Will Be Blood follows Plainview over the first quarter of the 20th Century as he ruthlessly builds his drilling empire at the expense of his own humanity, in a compelling and hellish representation of greed and exploitation. Plainview’s empire is the manifestation of the American dream at its most nightmarish, and a chilling insight into the cost of our modernity. And most importantly, of course, Daniel Plainview – true to his name – also offers us the now famous “I drink your milkshake” exposition of oil reservoir drainage: “my straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake. I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”
That’s all for now…stay tuned for part two. In the meantime, if you disagree with my selection, let us know who your favourite fictional geoscientists are in the comments. Go on, you know you want to…