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Around and about at the Bicentennial Conference

Society It-girl Dawne Riddle blogs daily from the sidelines of the Society's Bicentenary bash.

Poets' Corner

Oh here comes Thomas, in his four-piece suit (Virginia Woolf, attributed)

Dawne goes for a riddle at the QE2

Geoscientist Online 12 September 2007

As befits those who live to sing the praises of science, science journalists visiting the Bicentennial Conference are housed in a Media Suite on the fourth floor of the QE2 Centre, where the other rooms are named for British poets. 

There’s the Shelley Room, for meetings that make you want to throw yourself in the nearest lake; the Byron Room for exciting congresses; the Chaucer Room for rude, outspoken encounters, and the Wordsworth Room for meetings that start well but drivel on for far too long about not very much and become arid and tiresome. 

Among these are two rather poky adjacent rooms, clearly mislabelled, but named in honour of the author of Prufrock, The Waste Land, Little Gidding and the Four Quartets. We urge those who run the QE2 to put this egregious error right immediately. Meanwhile the polite reference to those facilities among the visiting media has become “I am going to the T S Eliot Suite”.

Antarctic Sonata

Kevin Jones plays the Sonata while Nick Petford (foreground) listens and the associated graphics play over the screen

Dawne attends the first performance of a work for piano created from scientific data obtained from the frozen continent

Geoscientist Online 12 September 2007

The second day of the Bicentennial Conference witnessed the first performance of Antarctic Sonata, composed and performed by Kevin Jones and conceived jointly with geologist Prof. Nick Petford of the University of Bournemouth. Presented with graphic animations of rock thin sections and maps on which the musical material was based, designed by Dr Stephen Bell, the hour-long concert proved a compelling example of science-art crossover that delighted the delegates before the Bicentenary Conference Dinner that evening. 

Other works performed included Count Basie’s “Volcano”, Grieg’s “The Mountaineer’s Song”, Webern’s “Variations Opus 27 for Piano, No. 1”, and Elgar’s original published piano versions of the theme from the Enigma Variations, together with variations 1, 8 and 9 (“Nimrod”, included in honour of the Nimrod Glacier, which also explained musical allusions to the Nimrod variation in Jones’s own piece. 

The Sonata’s three movements, which used such things as the colours in thin-sections to dictate the musical chromaticism and the outline of Antarctica and its ice-shelf to generate intervals and contrapuntally developed themes, would have benefited from being played together as intended. Being presented separately, and interspersed with other music, prevented the audience from gaining any sense of over-arching musical unity that the piece's three short movements may well have possessed. The organisers should have shown more faith in the piece and the audience’s capacity to sit through its 15 minutes, which possessed moments and passages of great beauty and evocative power. 

The well-known fact that music is best left to speak for itself was often borne out by Jones’s well-intentioned commentary, which on occasions only served to emphasize the tenuousness of the relationships between other composers’ work and the landscapes that surrounded them. Observing that Elgar’s themes go up and down in much the same way that the Malvern Hills do, only made me glad that Sir Edward left Vaughan-Williams to write “In the Fen country”. However Jones's performance at the keyboard was highly musical and technically flawless.  

That Bournemouth University should foster this kind of multidisciplinary activity, and that the Geological Society should include a premiere performance at its Bicentennial Conference, should be matters of pride for both institutions.   

Rogue Herries

Gordon Herries-Davies, coming down through the ages to address the multitude

Dawne Riddle attends a book launch at the Bicentennial Conference.

Geoscientist Online 11 September 2007

No gathering of geoscientists is likely to shut up and listen to someone else willingly, even if he is the President. Happily, Gordon Herries-Davies (Trinity College Dublin), author of the Society’s Bicentenary history Whatever is Under the Earth, is gifted at commanding even the toughest of tough rooms. And they don’t come much tougher than a wine reception at the end of the first day of an international geoscience conference. 

The distinguished historian of Earth sciences cut a strange figure among the delegates, as he stepped up to the microphone following Richard Fortey’s introduction – like a cross between William Buckland and Great Uncle Bulgaria. Yet his resounding voice, refreshingly fruitier than has become the norm these days, swiftly silenced the hubbub, as he explained how he had received the commission to write the Society’s story, over 10 years ago. 

His famous history of the Irish Geological Survey, North from the Hook: 150 Years of the Geological Survey of Ireland (1995) played a key role, he told the audience. By the late 1980s, the Society already had one eye cocked on its looming 200th birthday. The Publications Committee some years later conceived the idea of commissioning a historical work that would cover the whole of the Society’s history since its foundation, in a readable and accessible way – one that would prove more interesting to the general geologist reader than some dry, academic tome. 

Professor Wally Pitcher, a former President of the Society, had first suggested to Council that a bicentenary history be written, and as is the way with such things, Council handed the task to him.  Pitcher then undertook research towards such a history; but after ten years of interviewing geological notables, Pitcher may have felt that finishing the task was now beyond him. Herries Davies was then approached in an exploratory phonecall by the then President, Richard Hardman, to the author's home in Tipperary.  Never one to beat around the bush, Hardman's first question was: "How's your health been lately?".

“A copy of my Irish history had swum into the ken of the Publications Committee” Herries-Davies intoned. “And hence there came a summons to Burlington House - and a meeting of which I now forget the details; though I came away with the message that they wanted me “to do one of these for us”.” 

Also, perhaps with another eye towards history, they were perhaps anxious not to repeat the publishing disaster of Horace Bolingkbroke Woodward’s Centenary history. This rather arid catalogue of events and personalities, though a useful reference today, was for years a drain upon the Society’s resources as the massively over-numerous edition languished unsold in the basements of Burlington House, eventually to be rather unceremoniously remaindered. After sending a free copy to everyone who had attended the centenary celebrations as a guest or delegate – the Society had got a little carried away and ordered a further run of 500. These copies were still hanging around in 1943, at which time Council decided to give one away to every new Fellow elected, and to any library that asked for one, until the stock was cleared. 

The other message Herries-Davies carried away from his meeting was that the Society never paid royalties – a fact which, he said “absolves me of any accusation that this is some kind of self-interested sales-drive on my part! No, I merely want the book to be read and if my presence here today can in any way assist in that process of dissemmination, I shall feel that I have been amply recompensed.” 

He told the reception: “I vowed before beginning this work that I should approach it in a rather different way and not recoil from putting a little of myself into it.” That has proved the key secret of this engaging, and characteristically orotund book. I heard a nearby delegate whisper to another: “It’s true – you can hear him speaking in every word”. 

Thus, as one correspondent has written in a letter to Geoscientist: “ Rarely have I come across a book that is so readable, enjoyable and informative …. Author and publisher are to be congratulated on producing an incredibly detailed record of the Society's history in such a high quality book.”
Signings by the author continue today (11 September) at 12.45pm.

Society receives birthday gong

Dr Fortey (left) receives the von Buch Medal from Dr Rolling

The German Geological Society has awarded its highest honour, the Leopold von Buch medal, to The Geological Society of London, writes Dawne Riddle at the Bicentennial Conference

Geoscientist Online 10 September 2007 

At its Bicentennial Conference, which opened in at the QE2 Conference Centre in London today, Society President, Dr Richard Fortey FRS, received on behalf of the Society the Leopold von Buch Medal of the German Society for Geosciences (DGG). The medal is the highest honour that can be bestowed by the DGG, and has never before been presented to a Society. 

Presenting the award on the occasion of the Society’s Bicentenary, Dr Heinz-Gerd Roehling (Treasurer of the DGG) said the award was being given “in honour of 200 years of outstanding achievements in promoting geosciences in Great Britain and throughout the world”. 

“With this award the DGG acknowledges and congratulates you on the exemplary work carried out by your society, the oldest geological society, which has led to the founding of numerous other national geological societies.” 

The German Society presented the medal on the occasion of its own 159th Annual General Meeting, being held this year in Szczecin, Poland. The DGG was founded in 1848.

The Leopold von Buch medal was instituted in 1946 and was previously awarded to four British recipients: WIlliam J Arkell, Sir Kingsley Dunham and Anthony Hallam. 

Dr Roehling nearly didn’t make it to the conference – his plane was struck by birds on take-off from Hannover on 9 September. Fortunately he and the medal survived the experience and returned to Hannover to catch a much later flight.