The Geological Society’s annual awards will be presented at President’s Day on 6 June. Whilst the majority of the recipients have already been named, there is one more to announce – this year’s awards will feature a brand new medal, thanks to the generosity of Professor John Dewey.
The newly created Dewey medal will be awarded annually to a geologist who has made substantial and significant contributions to the science through sustained field mapping and/or field observation of rocks, and who has a strong record of training, leading and encouraging others to practise and pursue advances in geology by this means. The first recipient will be Rob Butler, Chair in Tectonics at the University of Aberdeen.
‘I’m surprised and very honoured to be recognised by the Society like this’ he says. ‘There are many great geologists who are grounded in field research. John Dewey has long been a strong advocate of the importance of properly describing and quantifying the relationships between rocks, especially in the field. More needs to be done to promote field research, wrongly seen by some as not of our time, and it is wonderful that the Society, with John’s assistance, has been able to establish this medal.
Like many geoscientists, Rob’s interested began in childhood. ‘Since a very young age I’ve been fascinated and inspired by mountains – not only be the exploits of those who have strived to explore and climb them but also by the grandeur of rock architecture. As a teenager in the 70s I also loved the long, detailed science programmes that started off the back of the coverage of the Apollo missions, and most of all by Nigel Calder’s BBC programme The Restless Earth. I knew straight away that I wanted to find out more about how the Earth worked tectonically.
Now, Rob is Chair in Tectonics at the University of Aberdeen. On his favourite aspects of his job, he says ‘the freedom to chase down whatever research question I want to tackle, coupled with the opportunity to teach (and hopefully inspire) students and others to study how our planet works – both in the modern world and in the geological past.’
Rob has long been associated with the Geological Society’s outreach efforts – among other projects, he was instrumental to 2014’s 100 Great Geosites project, and 2018’s Plate Tectonic Stories. Both projects hope to encourage all of us, geologists and non geologists alike, to visit geological sites in the UK and Ireland, and find out more about the incredible geology on our doorsteps. Rob is also a passionate advocate of the importance of fieldwork for geologists.
‘For many, seeing and asking questions of actual rocks and landforms is inspirational’ he says. ‘But fieldwork is often wrongly seen solely as an exercise in cataloguing the spacial distribution of geological materials followed by expeditions to collect samples for laboratory analysis, or to deploy and maintain instruments. All these can involve going outdoors but are only a small part of why Earth scientists should do fieldwork.’
‘The geometric relationships between different rock units are – in my view, the single most important part of solid Earth science. Get this wrong – or ignore it – and almost everything else is suspect. This applies at all scales – from the microscopic to the largest features on and in our planet (and others). We live on the Earth’s surface and if we can’t establish the relationships at a human scale then we’re in trouble. Fieldwork aimed at establishing how rocks are organised (and came to be that way) is fundamental. It’s also a great way of developing understanding of uncertainty and bias – because the next piece of evidence is just around the corner that can trip up our most elegant hypothesis.
The great virtue for training is that fieldwork is immersive (sometimes literally in the Highlands). This is important for developing appreciation of scale. Visualising and solving 3D geometric problems, for example to establish relationships between different fault zones, is an important skill – not only when interpreting seismic reflection and borehole data (when striving to exploit subsurface resources). So many different resource and engineering industries value fieldwork for developing these skills amongst their workforce. But the investigative and interpretational procedures learnt in the field are generally useful too. Creating explanations (hypotheses) based on incomplete data is a skill developed in good earth science undergraduate programmes that is highly valued by employers at large. The field is a great place – in my view the best – to do this…. because it is not a controlled laboratory environment.’
Having been part of many Geological Society outreach events involving highlighting particular sites, we asked Rob if he has a favourite.
‘So many! The most awe-inspiring has to be the Raikhot valley on the NW slopes of Nanga Parbat in Pakistan. It’s arguably the best transect in the world through a fault zone that has moved from the warm, ductile deeper crust up to the earth surface. Earthquakes on it have triggered landslips that blocked the Indus river. So you can see how deep (not that deep) Earth processes influence the surface.
‘Historically – the hillsides around the hill Foinaven in the NW Highlands of Scotland are important to me. It’s a wonderful rocky wilderness which is, as an old friend described as a kindergarten for thrust tectonics. It’s where I did my first serious mapping but is also where Henry Cadell was inspired to perform his analogue experiments in mountain building back in the 1880s.
‘I also love the sedimentological outcrops on Sicily – it’s a great place to investigate tectonic controls on stratigraphic successions. They’re so young and wonderfully constrained biostratigraphically, you can really back out deformation rates in great detail.
‘But really it’s about getting out and engaging with as many different geological settings as possible. You never know where your next idea (or hypothesis-devastating observation) might come from.’
And to those considering becoming a geologist themselves, his advice is simple: ‘as in any subject – be inquisitive and don’t be satisfied with an answer. Always test what you know by looking around the next corner (or backwards to what you’ve left behind.)’