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Life on the rock face

Life on the rock face

Geologists have a different concept of time to most. While politicians are often accused of short termism - of basing decisions around electoral cycles - the charge is certainly not one you could level at Stuart Monro, scientific director of Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh.

For a start, Monro is one of the few people who can give a considered answer to the likely cause of the apocalypse.

“Events like volcanic eruptions can act as wake-up calls. There was an example of that just a few years ago, when we had the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland - that affected Scotland quite significantly, and people started taking notice. Before that no one had really considered, certainly in the political arena, the possibility of a volcanic eruption in Iceland affecting us, but they are now very high up the risk register of the UK Government. Before Fukushima, no one thought much about tsunamis and the danger to coastal nuclear power stations, yet there has been a documented tsunami that covered much of the north east of Scotland, after a landslide off the coast of Norway. These catastrophic events do happen.”

He adds: “As a geologist, I think in timescales that are considerably longer than those of politicians, and I make no apology for considering what it will be like long after homosapiens are gone, and the planet is taken over by some other type of organism.”

The thoughts of geologists like Stuart Monro are likely to become of increasingly greater importance to politicians and economists, as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, populations grow, supply chains become stressed and weather events become more extreme.

“There is a phrase which is used frequently – sustainable economic growth, but it is a contradiction in terms, growth is not sustainable. It has got to peak off at some particular point and when we think about the resources that are available to us on our planet, thinking globally, most of them are finite resources, therefore continued growth is just not possible. There will come a time when we run out of gas, when we run out of other forms of hydrocarbon-based energies, and we’ll have to look at other things – even if we just consider solar energy, we’ll have solar energy for as long as we’ve got the sun, but the sun will not be there indefinitely. Now it won’t be gone in my lifetime, we should have about 5,000 million years left, so you can relax.

He continues: “I can see areas, particularly in the Middle East, where future wars will be fought, not over oil and gas but over water. We need to think about how we handle these resources very carefully. Take oil and gas – we use it to drive cars and create heat, is that the best use we can put it to?  It’s a very valuable chemical feedstock, we use it to make drugs – we make all sorts of things from the hydrocarbons that come out the ground. We have to make value judgements, and that requires thinking over a much longer timescale than the one that forms the mindset of most politicians these days, but for geologists, it is still a very short timescale.”

“But that question, of continual growth, is actually quite concerning because society itself seems to demand that, and perhaps that’s the change that we need, to become more content with our lot, to make better use of what we’ve got, to recycle as many resources as we can just to extend our shelf life,” he says.

Dynamic Earth sits in the shadow of Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat, half a mile from where James Hutton, the father of modern geology, wrote his theory of the earth. Earth science was born in Edinburgh and Monro can barely contain his enthusiasm in describing how Hutton looked up at the rocks in the crags and described how, hundreds of millions of years ago, they had been squeezed into the underlying sediment in a molten form.

With 34 years of experience as a principal geologist for the British Geological Survey, there is no doubting Monro knows his rocks, but for the last 18 years his aim has been to widen awareness of science, as a ‘science communicator’.

Dynamic Earth is aimed at doing exactly that, using engaging, interactive exhibitions – including a guest spot featuring a Ewan McGregor voiceover - to reach out to visitors, or ‘kids of any age’, as Monro puts it.

But is it dangerous to take complex scientific ideas and make them fun? Is there a danger in ‘dumbing down’? What would Hutton make of it?

“I would like to expunge the term ‘dumbing down’ from the vocabulary of the human being, I think it is totally inappropriate. But in terms of communicating science, what is appropriate is to pitch your science – your scientific knowledge – communicate that at a level that respects where people are coming from.

“There’s an old phrase, ‘geologists are good company, especially for other geologists’, that epitomises the challenge that faced us when we opened Dynamic Earth. This isn’t just for geologists - the idea is that we take the wonderful exciting stories that we have to tell about the nature of the planet on which we live and communicate them to people from nine to 90, and in order to do that we need to find ways to engage them,” says Monro, “I make no apologies for making it fun, but my role is to make sure it has scientific integrity to it. Ewan McGregor helped out but he didn’t write his script – I did that.

“Of course, part of the problem politicians get into is that the science of the world in which we live is incredibly complex – not difficult to understand necessarily, but complex because of the different interactions that happen where there is not just one cause of anything. All it takes is one large volcanic eruption to upset our climate model significantly – nature has a habit of bowling googlies every now and again.”

Monro and the other designers of Dynamic Earth were keen to ensure that the exhibits function together as a journey, taking visitors from the ‘big bang’, through the age of dinosaurs, to the present day.

“Go to a science centre anywhere in the world and it’s a big box with loads of exhibits in it and you bounce around it, pop out the end and hope you’ve learned something about science. We wanted Dynamic Earth to be a story – ‘once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a big bang’, and from there the story evolves. Each of the galleries is now an individual chapter and what we have tried to do is change the galleries in response to developing technologies, keeping the coherence of the story, but at the same time responding to new concerns in science.”

He continues: “So we had a polar gallery – which was superb – but it used old-fashioned technology, slides showing you images of the Arctic or the Antarctic. As time went on the technology changed and we became conscious that the polar regions were important, not just as an awe-inspiring environment, but as a laboratory of climate change. So we changed the gallery, we put in a big screen that projected the wonder of the Arctic along with other things that showed how ice cores can measure changes to climate. We use technology to fly people over the Alps and into the ocean to see Hammerhead sharks, and see how they have adapted to changing conditions.”

Dynamic Earth has become a big part of Edinburgh’s tourism, but like most museums, it struggles to break even.

Given Monro’s idea of a short timeframe, it is hard to say just how many years he is referring to when he says he wants to protect the science centre’s long-term future.

“In Scotland today it is important that we have a blend of informal and formal education. There are four science centres in Scotland and through those we are engaging in informal science. They were all set up as Millennium Projects, which meant that it was capital funding that came in – there was no recurrent funding – so the fact that we now, after a great deal of trouble, have got a response from the Scottish Government, which gives each of us some money is fantastic. That support allows us to be sustainable, because if we didn’t have that money we would be out of business, there’s no doubt about that – there’s no science centre anywhere in the world that exists without some support, either from a local authority or national government.

“So that funding is very valuable to us and we are very grateful for it, we really appreciate it. I wouldn’t be in this job unless I thought it was absolutely imperative that everybody out there knows something about how the earth works,” Monro says, “I work on the principle that we live on a small blue planet that hangs in the infinite of space and that our planet is our home – so it is important that everyone of us understands it.”

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