15 November 2009

Accretionary Wedge #21 - Geology for insomniacs and night security guards

This months accretionary wedge is being hosted at Magma Cum Laude and is about science (geology) out reach. Here is my offering.

Most people are so amazingly uninformed about the World around them it’s depressing. Understanding a bit of geology leads to a greatly improved insight into so many things from simply appreciating the scenery, to having a better insight into the context of climate change and, ultimately realizing that the World probably isn't 6000 years old, so religion is not a very good reason to blow people up. Yep, the World would be a better place if a few more people understood the wonders of it's workings just a bit better. But they don't and in the majority of cases it's not their fault, it’s just that nobody even tried to explain it to them in a way that was interesting or accessible.

Geology in the media is invariably dinosaurs and volcanoes, with the odd earthquake thrown in. Admittedly these are interesting and no doubt dynamic, but what about the rest of it? I love sedimentology and stratigraphy and what it can tell us about palaeogeography. I love the detective work that goes in to pulling all the fragmentary pieces of the jigsaw together. I could (and do) spend hours on Ron Blakeys website pouring over his beautiful reconstructions and I want to make everyone understand how truly awesome and dynamic the earth is.

I have done many bits of outreach, field trips, public talks, articles etc but the largest project was an eight part TV series which was made for Channel 4 and the Discovery Channel called the "Big Monster Dig". The format of the show was 3 "experts", a palaeontologist, a palaeobotonist and a sedimentologist, spend a weekend trying to "solve"a geological conundrum.

I was the sedimentolgist and how it got involved is another long story (see here), but suffice to say I was drafted in for two main reasons, firstly I was happy to hang off a cliff on a rope, dangle from a plane, go up in a balloon, paraglide etc and secondly because I could get a word in edgeways with palaeontologist Dave Martil who can talk like an auctioneer.

During the series we dug up mammoths in a gravel pit, we looked at the world's biggest fish in a brick pit in Peterborough, I hung off a tottering cliff on the south coast of England looking for Iguanadons and we headed south to Europe to study dinosaur eggs in a vineyard in France and saber-tooth tigers in Spain. It was fantastic fun.

Each show typically took 2 to 3 days of full time shooting, plus time spent filling in bits here and there. We never staged anything and since you can never guarantee finding fossils we always had lots of other stuff going on. For example I visited a brick factory to compare the weight of fired and unfired bricks as a way of determining the organic content of the London Clay.

I leant a lot about TV along the way. How much work goes into an hour long show, how many people slave away behind the scenes, how challenging it is to pull it all together and that it is possible to get out of a landrover the "wrong way". The phrase that echoes in my mind is "that was great, can you just do it again please?"

At the end of shooting the series there was a big buzz about it. The crew were really fun people to work with and also really interested in what we were doing. One of the camera men actually said to me after one scene "so this area was all sea then?" It would seem that he was actually listening.

The shows were aimed at children and families, with a serious geological undertone. I think we did an OK job of trying to get a serious message across in a fun way. The shows were shot in 2002 just as the Iraq invasion kicked off. Consequently they didn't make it on to the screens until late 2004. When they did they were not broadcast in the Sunday tea-time slot they were designed for but against Eastenders* at 8pm on a Tuesday evening. Because of this, they didn't quite get the viewing figures Channel 4 wanted. We thought 2 million people was pretty good for a geology show but C4 were looking for the next Big Brother and geology was unfortunately not going to deliver it. So the decided not to make anymore, which was a shame.

The programs are still re-run on Discovery, normally about 3am, so if nothing else there are a lot of insomniacs and night watchmen who know a lot more about geology than they otherwise would.

* If you are not from Europe - Eastenders is a depressing soap opera about people in London, it is one of the UK's most popular TV shows, although I will never understand why.

¤ Big Brother is the original shitte reality show for the vacuous

1 comment:

Guardpro Security said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.