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BA - flying the flag

Richard Fortey addresses the BA Geology Section at York University

The President celebrates "Day 4" of the Bicentennial Conference, which was held at the British Association Annual Festival in York.

Geoscientist November 2007

The Bicentennial Conference in the QE II Centre on 10-12 September was undoubtedly the highlight of a very busy year celebrating the birthday of the oldest geological society in the world. There are, however, a few other scientific organisations with a history almost as distinguished, first among which is the British Association for the Advancement of Science, or, as it is universally known, "the BA".

The BA held its first meeting in 1831, and it was organised in response to a widespread feeling among intellectuals that science was not being pursued vigorously enough at this time, which was at the start of the era of industrial technology. That seminal meeting was held in York, so it was particularly appropriate that this year the BA returned to the city of its foundation - to the attractive and spacious campus of the University of York.

Since its foundation, the BA acquired a special niche as a kind of shop window for new research and concepts. The meeting is attended by journalists from virtually all the UK national newspapers, and many from overseas - all on the lookout for stories to enliven the science pages that still tend to get set aside for this diary event. It is difficult to predict exactly which stories will catch the journalistic imagination, but it does a service to both science and scientists if a particular discovery hogs the headlines. At the same time, many of the attendees are BA regulars who have been coming for years, and carefully browse through the catalogue to find their event of choice.

Dr Gabi Schneider (Geological Survey of Namibia, Director) explains about water in sub-saharan Africa Earth Sciences have been the subject of a session at the BA for many years. I had the privilege of being President of what we used to call "Section C" at the Millennium. The late Beverley Halstead was indefatigable in trying to make the geological meetings among the most lively, and some will recall a notorious lecture during which he and his partner Helen Haste (now Professor Helen Haste of Bath University) demonstrated (in costume) the mating habits and postures of various dinosaurs. Nowadays, Bev Halstead is memorialised in an annual lecture that bears his name, given this year by our most recent Bigsby medallist, Philip Donoghue of Bristol University.

By a slightly unfortunate quirk of timing, the British Association meeting ran partly concurrently with the Bicentennial Conference ­ some of the journalists from the mainstream media, who otherwise might have attended our event, were already ensconced up north. However, the BA Earth sciences session entitled What has geology done for us? Was arranged to follow the close of our London meeting, and the speakers were provided in an act of somewhat overdue cooperation between the current Recorder, Dr Richard Waller (Keele University) and Ted Nield.

Thus, a rather bleary President, Executive Secretary, Editor and several speakers rushed hotfoot from the capital to attend the sessions the following day. Your previous President, Peter Styles, now taking over the same role for the BA Geology Section, gave an entertaining overview of where the subject was going; Bill Maguire reviewed geological hazards in masterly fashion; Jon Gluyas surveyed our energy needs in a practical and persuasive way; and Gaby Schneider reminded us of the overwhelming importance of water, especially in Africa. It was a rewarding day.

Those present agreed that the Society should expand its involvement with the BA – which next year will be relying upon Liverpool University as the BA caravan comes to rest in the European City of Culture for that year. Following on our new Society strategy which strongly emphasises public engagement, we hope we will provide more useful material to this magazine's editor when, mixing with his colleagues at the BA Media Centre, he surreptitiously draws their attention to Earth science stories that the BA Press Office may have overlooked…