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Ken Thomson, 1966-2007

Ken Thomson hailed from the village of Stainforth in South Yorkshire. Graduating from McAuley School in nearby Doncaster, Ken originally went to The University of Manchester in 1985 to study medicine, but after a couple of years realised that his academic heart clearly lay in the understanding how the Earth works. As a result, he transferred to study Geology, achieving an Upper Second Class Honours degree in 1990. He never looked back.

Ken then moved to take up a Shell-Esso funded PhD in the Department of Geology & Geophysics at The University of Edinburgh, studying the Tertiary tectonics and uplift of the Inner Moray Firth and adjacent areas. Several important publications arose from the postgraduate research, which lay the foundations for a long-standing interest in the use of methods to identify and quantify basin inversion and in understanding the controls on structural styles found in areas affected by tectonic uplift.

After Edinburgh, Ken moved to Oxford to take up a position there as a BP Junior Research Fellow in Geophysics. Two years later, he moved once more to take up his first academic staff position as a Temporary Lecturer in Petroleum Geology at Durham University. He remained at Durham for four years before being appointed as a Lecturer in Basin Dynamics at Birmingham in 1999, a post that gave Ken the stability he needed and the platform for him to produce high-quality research in several areas.

Over the course of his time at Birmingham, Ken was among the first to document structural styles that characterised the previously unexplored North Falklands rift system at a time when the basin was undergoing its first wave of exploration. This led to Ken investigating the conjugate margin in South Africa and to produce well-argued models of South Atlantic plate tectonics which challenged existing views.

In addition to his established interests in petroleum basins, Ken also branched out and embraced the innovative use of seismic interpretation in other areas of geoscience and archaeology. His work on submerged igneous landscapes on the North West Atlantic Margin, led to some key breakthroughs with the visualisation of buried sill complexes, giving unprecedented maps of the three-dimensional geometry and architecture of these bodies thus, helping igneous geologists better understand their flow behaviour and methods of emplacement.

Ken employed similar 3D seismic visualisation methods to demonstrate that they could have a major role in unravelling previously undetectable landscapes buried during post-glacial late Quaternary and Holocene sea-level rise. The work led to a successful collaboration with Professor Vince Gaffney in Birmingham’s Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity. Together, they pioneered research into Holocene geology, palaeoenvironment and archaeological potential of the Southern North Sea in conjunction with English Heritage. The work was very well received and led to a TV documentary by Channel 4’s Time Team entitled "Britain’s Drowned World", which was transmitted just a week after his untimely death from a heart attack.

The massive turn-out for Ken’s funeral in his home town under a cloudless blue May Day sky was testament to the respect with which he was held throughout the geological community. A memorial conference will be held in Ken’s honour in the School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences at The University of Birmingham in May. Ken is survived by his mother and father and his sister.

John Underhill