Professor Iain Stewart, of the University of Plymouth, and presenter of the BBC shows Earth: The Power of the Planet and How Earth Made Us was good enough to take time out of his busy visit to the Edinburgh International Science Festival to talk to GeekChocolate about presenting science on television, the frontiers of geology, and what the future holds for him and the planet.
Geek Chocolate – It’s great that the BBC gives primetime to big budget documentaries, and you’re one of their flagship presenters, up there with Professor Brian Cox, nipping at the heels of Sir David Attenborough in terms of the scope of your shows. How did that come about?
Iain Stewart – Well, it’s a slow process. I started doing it in 2003, so that’s been nearly eight years. I’ve always been lecturing, always been performing, so I’ve always thought of the lecture as a performance, even when it’s been twenty people in a room. I wanted to look for something fresh, and the natural thing would be to go into television, so that was my big attempt to try and do this. I needed to put myself in a slightly risky place in order to make it work, and it worked out really well. I think that was the thing, everyone was really good in saying “Look, this is going to take ages, you’ll be years,” and it actually happened overnight, in the sense of getting a series, but I think that advice has stuck with me, because everyone knows it’s a fickle business, I think it’s as well to know that right from the start.
GC – And what is your next show going to be?
IS – I’m starting to film in two weeks, it’s called The Green Planet, and it’s looking at the story of plants as an agent of change on the planet.
GC – And the BBC Natural History Unit are also getting ready with The Frozen Planet.
IS – Yeah, the planet is big now, you just need to look at even Brian Cox’s stuff, he’s talking about space, and talking about quite familiar things in astronomical terms, but what he uses as metaphors is the planet, and he goes to these incredible places, so even in terms of other worlds, it’s our world we’re fixated by. And it’s a big place.
GC – I’ve noticed that in your work, no matter how great the scale of the phenomena you describe, you always talk about how if affects people and their lives. How important is it for you to make sure that science is communicated to an audience in an accessible and entertaining way?
IS – Well, it’s huge, it’s the only thing that’s important, really. The education side I get by turning up in front of my students and teaching, so the thing that television gives is a whole audience that isn’t interested in geology, that doesn’t want to go to university and do it, so they’re not wanting to be educated really, they’re wanting to be entertained. I don’t think it’s about watering down the science, I think it’s about spreading the science, and so if you spread it you have to be more imaginative and entertaining about the message you give in order for people to listen to you. Of course, it’s a dilution, but a dilution of what? If I’d done a research talk, everyone would have fallen asleep.
GC – Much of what we know of the interior of the Earth is by inference – continental drift from the movement of tectonic plates, the interior structure by the passage of sound waves through the different layers – but now there is a project planned to drill through the ocean crust off Costa Rica to reach the Mohorovicic discontinuity and access and access the mantle directly. Is this a project that will give us a deeper understanding of our planet, or will it just more clearly define yet more questions about the formation of the Earth?
IS – There’s a project going on now, into getting to the Moho – we call it the Moho, it’s much easier than the Mohorovicic discontinuity – at Nankai in Japan. There’s a lot of excitement about that, but I think in the end, as you say, it will just ask more questions, I don’t think there’s any great revelation. But already people are starting to say “If we drill down, what will come out, all this stuff will come out,” as if there’s some overpressurised thing. I think all of these things, just step by step, are quite exciting. I think it will be lots of very intricate, solid science, but in the end we’ve only gone twenty kilometers maximum in the planet, it’s the deepest we’ve ever gone, so really there’s huge realms that we have no concept of.
GC – It’s completely off topic, but when I was watching the Blu-rays of Earth: Power of the Planet the other day, I kept humming Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
IS – I’d love to do something like that! The fact is, there’s really good science now on the theoretical stuff of what should be down there. For example, in the core, they think that the minimum length of iron crystals is five kilometers long, and more likely eighteen kilometers long, that’s what the science is saying, so I think that’s there’s some really interesting things there. The idea that it’s literally an unknown zone isn’t quite true. As you say, it’s from inference, but there’s lots of stuff that we’ve got a fair idea of, some of which could be wrong, but it would be great to go there.
GC – Recognising the difficulty of commenting on the work of another team without first perusing their data and experimental protocols, what are your impressions of the research recently reported at the European Geosciences Union indicating Arctic summers could be ice free in a much shorter timeframe than originally proposed, possibly within a decade, and what would the wider implications of that be?
IS – I think that’s probably pretty standard now, actually, that ten years for ice free.
GC – That’s terrifying. Especially if you’re a polar bear.
IS – It is. But it’s not terrifying if you are someone interested in world trade, or someone growing up in Greenland, where the cruise ships now can come in all the way through the summer. I think the point is, it is going to be the reality, but there’s going to be winners and losers. There is no doubt that it’s going to be transformed in the Arctic community, and traditional practices are going to go to the wall, but equally, they’re going to suddenly get the ability to have what we’ve got – they’re going to get rich on burning the fossil fuels that are sitting offshore of Greenland. It’s a very diffi
cult, messy thing. What’s interesting is how geology merges seamlessly into geopolitics, which shouldn’t really be a surprise.
GC – Why is there such resistance to good sense? Regardless of whether climate change is driven by man made carbon dioxide increase, when we have a better way of living, why not do that simply because it is a better way to live?
IS – I got a great question once when I was talking about climate change, and someone said “What if you scientists are wrong and we go and make a better world for nothing?” He was being tounge in cheek, but it was exactly the right thing – energy efficiency, mixing energy sources, being more sustainable in our uses, it’s kind of a win/win. There are costs, clearly, but I’m with him, really.
GC – Here in Edinburgh, a city built on the remains of a volcano, we are surrounded by the magnificent natural beauty of our planet. Can you ever turn off the scientist, go on holiday somewhere, and just enjoy the scenery, be it mountains, sand dunes, fjords or river deltas, without analysing everything you see?
IS – No. I’m off on a family holiday tomorrow, and we’re going to Sicily, and we’re going up Mount Etna. That’s on Tuesday, because it’s my ten year old’s birthday, and I want her to have it on the tip of Mount Etna. Actually, it’s an interesting point, because you cannot switch it off, once you start to see it. It’s a terrible curse, you can’t just go “That’s pretty,” you have to go “That’s pretty, I wonder how that formed.”