Blog & News

5th Annual Stoneley Lecture: “Living with Volcanoes” with Sir Tony Robinson and Professor Dougal Jerram

Tue 16 June 2015

Category: Education, London, Outreach

Review by Tracey Dancy, Dancy Dynamics

Guinness and Ferrero Rocher – unconformities in the home of non-conformists…

This year’s Stoneley Lecture was held on 10th March at Westminster Central Hall, and featured the ever popular Sir Tony Robinson with sidekick Professor Dougal Jerram, both excellent communicators and clearly passionate about their explosive subject.

The audience of 450 was almost double that of 2014, and included children as young as 3, demonstrating that volcanoes have an enduring fascination for people of all ages.  Sir Tony was self-effacing about his knowledge, deferring to Dougal on technical content, but it was obvious that he is well-informed and clearly enthralled with the historical, sociological and geological aspects of these unpredictable peaks.

Sir Tony’s fascination was sparked by a visit to Santorini, and the impact that the Late Bronze Age eruption of Thera had on the landscape and the inhabitants, leading, many believe, to the legends of Atlantis still popular today.  Known for his interest in history, mythology and archaeology, the effects of this eruption on the Minoan culture could not have failed to capture Sir Tony’s attention, and this led to further exploration and a lifelong enthrallment.  From the Bronze Age we were taken to Pompeii, and the lives of Pliny the Elder and the Younger, and the invaluable contribution they made to our knowledge of what it’s like to be caught by a devastating eruption.  We were given an insight, through words written at the time, of how destructive and overwhelming the effect is on lives and the land nearby, and how the people of the time considered these events as punishment from the gods.

We were brought right up to date with how the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull (the name of which Sir Tony deftly avoided pronouncing) in Iceland in 2010 caused no deaths but a completely different kind of devastation – affecting the economic, political and cultural activities in Europe and across the world, not least, remarked Sir Tony, costing John Cleese around £3300 for a taxi journey from Oslo to Brussels (and incidentally stranding current PESGB President Hamish Wilson in the US for several weeks).

Sir Tony’s love of the British countryside was also a key part of the lecture, as he spoke passionately about Snowdon – now an extinct volcano – and the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, which in the east follows a hard, resistant igneous diabase rock escarpment, known as the Whin Sill, created towards the close of Carboniferous Period some 295 million years ago (Ma), when crustal extension caused by movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates allowed the emplacement of igneous intrusions of magma across much of northern England.

Touching lightly on the fertility of the land around volcanoes – and therefore the persistence of man in returning to live on volcanic slopes within a very short time after a catastrophic eruption – we were left at the end of this vibrant and entertaining talk with the somewhat sobering thought that we are entirely unable to predict when – and for the most part where – the next devastating and potentially extinction causing eruption might occur.

Throughout the lecture, Dougal Jerram provided excellent technical information in an engaging and easy to understand way.  Demonstrating how pumice and obsidian are “the same” using a can of Guinness and a willing (!) volunteer from the audience would certainly not be something before witnessed in Central Hall – home to Methodists.  Both Dougal and Sir Tony were voluble on the history of our understanding of the earth as more than a “wet Ferrero Rocher, sort of round and bumpy and soft in the middle”, most particularly on Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) whose theories on continental drift were largely ignored until the 1960s – and James Hutton (1726-1797) who was convinced by unconformities in rock formations that the earth was older than 6000 years, as most people believed at the time.

No audience could be dormant during this wide-ranging feast of science, history and breath-taking photographs, delivered in true Tony Robinson style – enthusiastic, informed and well-rounded, with a bit of Baldrick thrown in.  We very much look forward to next year’s lecture, though it has to be said, this one will be difficult to beat.

The PESGB would like to thank their sponsors Polarcus and Spectrum for contributing to such a successful event.

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