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The Wollaston Medal

The Wollaston Medal is the highest award of the Geological Society. This medal is normally given to geologists who have had a significant influence by means of a substantial body of excellent research in either or both 'pure' and 'applied' aspects of the science.


The 2015 Wollaston Medal winner is James Jackson


James Jackson (Wollaston Medal)

Finally, we come to the Wollaston Medal – the Society’s senior medal and highest accolade, first awarded to William Smith in 1831.  Today this most prestigious accolade goes to Professor James Jackson of the University of Cambridge.

There is no region in the world where active continental deformation is taking place, of which our understanding has not been enhanced by some important contribution made by this year’s laureate.  In a fashion rare in the modern world, James Jackson’s research spans a wide range of disciplines within geology, and his research is valued equally highly by academic and applied scientists.  By his teaching and public communication, he has also been responsible for inspiring a generation of geologists and members of the wider public.

Very few scientists today are able to span the full range of disciplines involved in the study of tectonics; but of those who can and do, James Jackson stands at the forefront.  Throughout his career he has seamlessly combined geology, geomorphology, geochronology and seismology to illuminate active tectonics in practically every major region of active continental deformation.

The way he is able to integrate these many disciplines at a profound level has led him to make ground-breaking syntheses of the Aegean region and Iran, and to many novel insights into the tectonics of western North America, the Middle East, Africa, New Zealand and Central Asia.  
He has also made important contributions to our understanding of how the mechanics of the lower crust and upper mantle influence the tectonics seen in the upper crust, combining seismology, geodesy, metamorphic petrology and gravity in a way that is almost unique today.

In this sense, James is a 19th Century throwback!  Not only does he (like Lyell, or Oldham) make no distinction between geology, geophysics or geochemistry - regarding all as equal servants in the cause of understanding our planet.  He also draws no distinction between basic science and its application.  His research has proved equally relevant to those interested in geodynamics, resource distribution on the continents, or in earthquake hazard and risk, and he goes to great lengths to ensure that the information he generates is accessible to all.

This alone would, perhaps be enough, but Jackson has also proved himself an outstanding educator.  His memorable Christmas Lectures to Young People at the Royal Institution in 1995 drew many – young and old - into geology, and he continues to do whatever he can to enhance the public understanding and appreciation of science.  An inspiring mentor, outstanding lecturer, his accomplishments are attested to by all his former students, who currently adorn both basic and applied aspects of our discipline.

James Jackson, you are a profoundly important figure in geoscience today.  It therefore gives me the greatest pleasure to acknowledge your outstanding achievements by conferring upon you now the Wollaston Medal of The Geological Society of London.


Thank you Mr President for this overwhelming honour, and thank you also to the Society, Council and those who nominated me.

I am here today through the chance of good luck and favourable timing.  When I went to university I had no plans to become a geologist but was, like many, captivated on my first field trip (to Arran) by exposure to how detailed observations in the field can be connected to huge, planet-wide concepts and processes, and the vastness of geological time.  The beauty of our subject, and particularly its ability to find simple explanations for what we see around us,  hit me quite unexpectedly and very hard, and has stayed with me ever since.  Later on I experienced a similar sense of wonder reading works by Arthur Holmes, Charles Cotton, Bob Wallace and John Ramsay, all of whom could instinctively see amazing things in the landscape and rocks,  and who have inspired me throughout my career.

Then I just happened to graduate at a time when earthquake seismology developed rapidly, acquiring a sensitivity and accuracy that made it relevant in problems of structural and tectonic geology on the continents, so we could start to observe the processes those people talked about while they were actually going on today.   Things only got better, with ever-increasing power and capability through satellite imagery, GPS, and radar interferometry.   My colleagues and I soaked up these technological advances as they came along but, in spite of their intrinsic seductiveness, it was always their ability to help explain puzzles in the field that was their attraction to me. 

Most of the problems I have worked on had their origin in basic geological observations, and I can only imagine how jealous my earlier heroes would be, seeing the tools at our disposal now ─ while I still wonder at the insights they had without any of them.  It is nonetheless quite clear that they foresaw what is now self-evident: that in the great continental earthquake belts signals in the landscape, or geomorphology, reveal the structural and tectonic geology in action; if only we can learn to read them properly.

So I have been lucky in timing, but also extremely fortunate with my colleagues: in particular, the opportunity to interact closely throughout my career with Dan McKenzie, Peter Molnar, Nick Ambraseys and Philip England has been an enormously privileged experience of mixing with giants, who time and again have stopped me making serious mistakes.  In addition, I have worked with a stream of outstanding graduate students, who quickly became friends, colleagues and equals, and whose ability has often astounded me.  

And on top of all that, I have had the luck to be in a Department of Earth Sciences that instinctively works across disciplinary boundaries, is anti-hierarchical, and is full of people who want to give students the same inspiration, opportunities and excitement that have nurtured me.  All these colleagues know how important they have been to me, and on their behalf, and in tribute to them, I accept this award with gratitude.