Here it is, part two of my very subjective round-up of the ten best fictional geoscientists … EVER! If you missed part one you can see it behind Door Eight of the advent calendar.
Thanks for your comments so far – some great suggestions, keep them coming! Here are the ones on my list:
Tom Hepple (Another Year, 2010)
Tom Hepple, played by Jim Broadbent in Mike Leigh’s 2010 film Another Year, is so realistic a fictional geologist he wouldn’t be out of place here at the Geological Society. And it’s no wonder. Leigh and Broadbent had the assistance of Geological Society council member Paul Maliphant in researching the role, whilst the Society Library provided some materials for set dressing. Tom is the kind of geologist who works for a large civil engineering firm. Tom is the kind of geologist who puts on a hard hat and a high-viz vest when visiting construction sites. Tom is the kind of geologist who has an allotment. But – before you get too excited – Another Year isn’t really a film about geology; Tom’s profession is largely incidental to the plot, apparently little more than background texture. And yet it seems to me that Tom’s career as an engineering geologist is relevant to the quality of his civility: he is an educated, technically skilled professional, yes; but he is also out in the world building something, getting his hands dirty, with his feet in the mud. Like I said, Tom is the kind of geologist who has an allotment.
Dr Natalie York (Voyage, 1996)
Stephen Baxter’s counter-factual-historical-hard-science-fiction novel, Voyage, recounts an alternative history of the second half of the 20th Century in which President Kennedy survives his assassination and – following the successful moon landing – urges NASA to next set their sights on a manned mission to Mars. Dr Natalie York is a Martian geologist (that is, she’s a geologist who specialises in the planetary geology of Mars, not a Martian who is also a geologist; that would be a very different book…) who is taken on by NASA to give the flyboy astronauts some training in what to look for when they get there. Ambitious, passionate, and driven by the conviction that if you’re going to spend billions of dollars and years of effort on going all the way to Mars it might not be such a bad idea to take a specialist in Martian geology with you, Dr York works her way into NASA, becomes the first American woman in space, and ultimately earns her place on the Mars mission. Basically, she’s a living, breathing Curiosity Rover.
Whitney Ellsworth (Deadwood, 2004 – 2006)
Whitney Ellsworth is the prospector and mining operation manager in the astounding HBO drama about the formative years of Deadwood during the gold rush in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The show incorporates several fictionalised historical figures, including the ruthless mining magnate George Hearst, alongside a foul-mouthed Lovejoy. Ellsworth (played by Jim Beaver) is a former employee of Hearst’s mining company, who struck out on his own in protest against Hearst’s lack of care for working conditions in his mines; whatever else he is, Ellsworth is a visionary when it comes to employee health and safety. He takes over management of the widow Alma Garret’s mining claim, and then fights to protect her interests when Hearst’s prostitute-murdering chief geologist comes to town to expand the Hearst empire. With a “dead eye for the colour” (I think that means he is good at finding gold…) Ellsworth is not only a true pro, he is also a pillar of integrity amongst the manipulations and corruption that entangle the Deadwood settlement and taint most of its inhabitants.
Professor Dingo (Bleak House, 1852 – 1853)
This one may seem a mite tenuous, since Professor Dingo is very much an off-stage character, being the late second husband of one of Bleak House’s several dozen minor characters, mentioned only briefly and in passing in this elephantine novel. But Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a bit of Dickens, right? And oh how very Dickens that even this off-stage late second husband of a minor character should leap off the page fully formed in all his glorious idiosyncrasy:
“People objected to Professor Dingo when we were staying in the North of Devon after our marriage,” said Mrs Badger, “that he disfigured some of the houses and other buildings by chipping off fragments of those edifices with his little geological hammer. But the Professor replied that he knew of no building save the Temple of Science.”
It has been suggested that Charles Dickens based Professor Dingo on his friend Richard Owen, he who coined the term dinosaur, first director of the Natural History Museum, and Fellow of this Society. Don’t let anyone tell you those weren’t the good old days.
Dr Amy Barnes (Volcano, 1997)
1997 saw a face-off between two volcano disaster movies: Dante’s Peak and, er, Volcano. Dante’s Peak is perhaps the superior movie, but surely Anne Heche’s Dr Amy Barnes beats Pierce Brosnan’s Dr Harry Dalton as the best volcanologist (plus, Volcano’s “The Coast Is Toast” is one of the finer movie taglines you are likely to ever come across). Working for the California Geological Institute, Dr Barnes believes a volcano is forming beneath Los Angeles, and has to work fast to avert disaster. She does the usual things scientists do in disaster movies: she measures the temperature of ornamental lakes; she takes soil samples; she consults geological maps; she helps Tommy Lee Jones save L.A. by diverting the flow of magma into the Pacific Ocean; oh, and she helpfully shoe-horns nuggets of expository information into the dialogue, such as “when Mount Saint Helens blew, the force was twenty seven thousand times greater than that of the Hiroshima bomb”, and that “magma” is another word for “lava”. Huh.