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Bicentennial Year starts with a bang!

Geoscientist 17.3 March 2007

With the simultaneous release of 4567 balloons from the Courtyard of Burlington House on 10 January 2007, The Geological Society of London celebrated not only its own 200th birthday, but also the 4567 millionth birthday of Planet Earth, writes Dawne Riddle, Society reporter.

The event was witnessed by children from local schools, the Executive Board of the United Nations International Year of Planet Earth, Fellows of the Society, staff members at Burlington House and members of the public.

President of the Society, Richard Fortey FRS, said: "Two hundred years ago this year, less than a mile from this very spot, The Geological Society of London was founded by 13 men sitting in a pub on Long Acre. It was also a Friday 13th (of November), which I think shows a creditable disregard for cant and superstition – something that has been a hallmark of geologists and their subject ever since.

"In its 200 years this Society, the oldest national Society in the world for Earth science and now by far the largest in Europe, has seen its subject achieve maturity in a shorter time than any other science.

"The challenges that lie ahead for Earth scientists are greater today than they have ever been. Everything that humanity needs that cannot be grown, has to be dug from the Earth - and therefore discovered by a geologist. Nearly all the energy, raw materials and water we depend on, come to us thanks to the geosciences. Our challenge for the next 200 years is to use our understanding of the Earth System so that we can continue to use these riches in a wise and sustainable way - to achieve a healthier, wealthier society for all.

"We all inhabit the Earth courtesy of its geology. From finding oil, gas and uranium to disposing of radioactive waste, charting past climate change, forecasting volcanic eruptions and warning of tsunamis - the work of geologists is often unfashionable because it reminds people of uncomfortable truths they would rather ignore. But that is the nature of all science, which does not exist to please us, or to make us feel good, but to help us understand uncompromising nature. Moreover, because science "works", it enables us to use that understanding to make people's lives better – and, if we try really hard, without destroying our world in the process.

"So when we look at the Thames Barrier and worry about rising sea levels, or to Sub-Saharan Africa and worry about increasing drought and water shortages, or when we wonder where the energy we need for our very existence will come from in the future, we are asking geological questions. Earth scientists have a unique capacity to solve these problems because they think on the Earth's timescale, measurable in millions and billions of years, not ours, measured in mere centuries and millennia. Above all, Earth science helps us to see how robust, yet also how changeable our Earth is – and so to understand that when it comes to our climate, constancy is the one thing we have no right to expect. We must adapt."

Half of the all-natural, fully biodegradable balloons bore the Society’s logo, while the other half bore that of the United Nations International Year of Planet Earth. This was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly for 2008, so that the three years of activity that straddle it can begin with the anniversary of foundation of the world’s first national learned society dedicated to furthering Earth science.

Speaking of the Year, TV presenter Prof. Aubrey Manning (University of Edinburgh), said: "This United Nations Year will be in 2008, but as its activities span three years it is beginning now, to coincide with the birthday of the world's oldest Geological Society. In fact among the crowd here today we welcome Dr Eduardo de Mulder and his colleagues from the International Year's Board of Directors, drawn from all over the world, who have chosen to have their first meeting here in Burlington House today.

President of the SOciety, Dr Richard Fortey FRS (left) receives the AGI Explorer Award from Mr Larry Woodfork He went on: "The Earth sciences in the 21st Century are reaching a peak of interest and influence – and I speak as a biologist, whose subject is also said to be entering a golden age just now. I believe this is no coincidence. As we learn more about the planet that – uniquely as far as we know – has given rise to life, the more we realise that old discipline barriers – biology, geology, chemistry and so on - are meaningless. Earth and life cannot be separated. Life and the planet on which it arose are a unit.

"We have no other home. The way we use it - for use it we must - is crucially important to the people who come after us. We hold this planet in trust for future generations, for the children we see here today. And the key to this sustainable use, to learning to live within our environmental means without destroying something that has evolved over millions of years, is understanding the Earth System itself.

"This is the challenge facing the world today, a challenge for research and education that I hope the United Nations International Year of Planet Earth will go a long way towards meeting."

The balloons were finally released by TV presenter Dr Iain Stewart (University of Plymouth), who revealed the answer to the question "how old is the Earth?", which he had posed earlier to the schoolchildren, who had spent the morning learning about Earth science in the Society's apartments.