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Alan Ernest Mussett 1935-2017

sftjGeophysical university educator and  former Secretary of the British Geophysical Association

Alan Mussett, eminent geophysical educator, was born in Lewisham on 24 April 1935 and died on 12 May 2017 in Liverpool aged 82 after a long illness. Alan was a former Head of Geophysics at the University of Liverpool and a past Secretary of the British Geophysical Association. He was an astute, scrupulous and amiable physicist who made notable contributions to palaeomagnetism, K-Ar dating, and geophysical education in the UK.

His interest in geophysics started as an early PhD student recruited by the Cosmic-Ray Physicist, Nobel Laureate, PMS (Lord) Blackett who moved from Manchester to Imperial College to set up a palaeomagnetic laboratory to examine the origin and past behaviour of the earth’s magnetic field.  Alan’s brief was to see how the magnetization of rocks was affected by pressure – the piezomagnetic effect; a difficult project but Alan developed his theoretical skills and experimental flair to demonstrate that the effect was too small to affect the dramatic results on how magnetic polar paths from different continents changed with time which later led to the acceptance of the hypothesis of continental drift.

After his PhD in 1961 he became Lecturer in Physics at the University of Nairobi where he built, from sundry parts, a paleomagnetic lab with an astatic magnetometer (still operational today!) which was used to record the polarity transition across the Matuyama – Gauss boundary from lava flows from Ngorongoro crater. He also sampled the Ethiopian Traps to compare their magnetization with the Aden volcanics on the other side of the Red Sea, formed during the break up of Africa from Arabia through seafloor spreading.

While at Nairobi he interacted with geophysicists from Leicester and Birmingham investigating the deep structure beneath the East African Rift with gravity and seismic surveys, which became the Kenya Rift International Seismic Project (KRISP) from 1985 – 1995. Alan was in charge of firing large explosive charges in the hostile Lake Turkana!!

Alan returned to the UK in 1967 to set up a K-Ar dating lab at the University of Liverpool. He worked with Brent Dalrymple, later  President of AGU, at his state-of-the art rock-dating lab at USGS in California where they did vital work on sources of atmospheric Argon contamination in K/Ar dating, finding evidence for initial 36Ar in volcanic rocks with implications for the interpretation of laboratory data. A critical development was the use of 3-dimensional plots in K-Ar dating. His 40 Ar– 39Ar step-heating ages for the Tertiary igneous rocks of Mull, Scotland demonstrated the success of his methodologies.

Alan was interested in everything, everywhere but his first priority was geophysical education.  He was the lead author in two classic textbooks: The Inaccessible Earth with Geoff Brown and Looking into the Earth with Aftab Khan. He had a phenomenal knowledge of all aspects of solid earth geophysics and was much in demand as an external examiner.

He is survived by his cousin, Sue Lucas.  

We shall all miss his lively company, encyclopaedic knowledge, generous hospitality and sense of humour.

By Aftab Khan with contributions by Andrew Brock, Nick Kusnir, and Peter Styles