Dr Ted Nield – “We are definitely doomed”

I’ve been wanting to interview Dr Ted Nield for some time, so catching him at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was  lucky. We’d agreed to meet the morning after his event in Charlotte Square. He was totally absorbed in his Kindle as I arrived – slightly late, unfortunately – at his Edinburgh hotel. He had taken my suggestion about needing somewhere quiet seriously, and led the way to a lounge at the far end of the hotel. We sat down in the window, overlooking the street, and I started on my long list of questions.
Ted Nield

Helen: Do you have a rock collection?

Ted: Do I have a rock collection? (He laughs.) Yeah, I do actually. It was encouraged when I studied Geology. In those days for your A level you had to make a rock collection as it was part of the exam. It isn’t encouraged anymore. Too many people doing too much random collecting, and it’s bad for exposures. But I did make a rather large collection, which has now been donated to various places, lent to people and given to people, but I do still preserve some specimens for my own.

Helen: Do you have a favourite rock?

Ted: Not really. I used to, but my favourites would change from one year to the next, but it was usually, because I’m a Palaeontologist, a fossil specimen. Some of the better fossils specimens that I collected are now at the Geological Society being used in the teaching collection that we’re building up. So I’ve donated it to the greater good.

Helen: When did you first realise that you liked Geology?

Ted: I think my academic progress was life away from Mathematics and I knew that I wanted to be a scientist. I think because my father encouraged me to be one. My problem was I was hopeless at Mathematics and I lived in the belief that descriptive science still had a place. So in avoiding Physics and Mathematics I went to Chemistry and Biology, and then I was looking for another subject to do for A level, and Geology happened to be offered in my school. I had some experience of it because I used to attend extra-mural lectures at the university with my father. This was my first subject and gradually it took over.

Helen: Is that what first drew you to Geology? Was it more the descriptive than the mathematical side?

Ted: I always say there are two types of Geologists: those that can count and those that can’t, and I’m one of those who can’t. Of course, all science is heavily Mathematical now. I was never any good at those things. I could never do Physics, at least not to any advanced degree; I was always going to be on the side of things that are more descriptive, which was fine for me as a Palaeontologist.

The thing with Palaeontologists is nowadays it’s becoming heavily Mathematical. I was there at the time before computers took over, which just removed a lot of the need for people to be Mathematical, as computers do that wonderful thing of de-skilling everybody. So nobody really needs to know how it works, just understand the principle and the machine does the rest.

Helen: What was your university experience like? Was it a lot different then?

Ted: It probably was. One thing that I hope hasn’t changed very much would be the amount of contact out in the field. There is a lot of pressure on universities to do less field work, because it’s expensive and there are all kinds of constraints because of health and safety with the work. And students now have to work to earn money, often to minimise their debt which wasn’t a problem in my day. The other thing that may be very different is, we were about 35 people in each year and we were all a bit outdoors-y. We were climbers, or walkers and we were used to being outdoors and it was the outdoors aspects of Geology that attracted us all the the subject. Now people don’t spend so much time in the outdoors and this causes problems for people leading field trips; people fall over and sprain their ankle.

Helen: They’re not used to being out there.

Ted: And they get stung by a bee for the first time, and discover that they are allergic. I remember when I had to buy my first hard hat! It was the first time anybody had had to wear a hard hat in the university, and we went and collected our hard hats and never, ever had there been any injuries of falling rocks for as long as anybody could remember. And we went on a field trip to Dorset and there were three reported incidents of injuries, all due to people’s foreheads being lacerated by hard hats falling off the bus luggage rack as it went round corners! So there you go…

Helen: Health and safety gone mad?

Ted: Yeah, that’s very different now. And because there were no computers we didn’t do anything on computers. We were just starting to have personal calculators; students could just about afford one of those, so the slide rule was going out of use. But people still used log tables, that sort of thing for complicated Maths, so it was much more manual labour.

Helen: You’ve done events at the Edinburgh International Science Festival and one now at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Have you ever done small talks to promote Geology to younger ages? Maybe at GCSE/ A level age?

Ted: I don’t do very much of that. The Geological Society where I work three days a week editing their magazine… I have been working at various capacities over 13 years and during that time I have been involved with some of the work they do with schools and with amateurs as well. The Society now has a graded membership for amateurs, which has gone up through the Shell London Lectures.

They have been a feature since 2007 when the society was 200 years old and we were giving lectures for the first time. We started developing a regular clientele of people who would come along to these lectures and wanted something extra, so we invented this new category “Friends of the Society.” They get a copy of my magazine and we have events and lectures outside the Shell lectures, and I’ve given a few of those about the history of Geology and the history of the Society.

Helen: There have been claims recently about a “Brian Cox Effect”, that he has raised interest in Physics and Maths. Do you think that’s had any effect on Earth Sciences?

Ted: Well… actually I was thinking about the A levels just before you came here, because I was thinking about what to write in my editorial for October and I think it might be on something to do with A levels because the A level results this year showed an 8% growth in Physical Science recruitment. Astronomy has seen a spectacular growth of 40 something percent, and that is undoubtedly the “Brian Cox Effect”. Of course there weren’t that many Astronomy students to begin with so 40% increase is still quite a small number, but nevertheless it is very encouraging. In a minority subject like Earth Sciences, you will probably always see small changes in recruitment into courses, but if its going up that’s good. And of course we have our own Iain Stewart…

Helen: Yeah, Men of Rock.

Ted: He’s done sterling work in promoting Earth Sciences to a wider audience, though of course he hasn’t quite got the “Rockstar Glamour” thing. He’s never played keyboard that I know, though he was a child actor in Huntingtower (1978). I don’t know if he likes me to remind people of that but you can see clips on YouTube. He’s also had his effect and all these things must be pulling in the right direction. Encouraging news coming from the recruitment into Geo Sciences in universities, and the recruitment into teacher training courses for Earth Sciences.
Ted NieldHelen: That’s good! What advice do you have for someone who wants to study Earth Sciences? Do you have tips to make them more attractive to universities? It is quite competitive to just get in.

Ted: Yes, that’s true. With everybody doing so much better at A level it’s difficult to distinguish oneself from everybody else, so there is more pressure to demonstrate commitment to the subject or area of interest outside academia. I don’t know whether the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme still exists? I guess it probably does. It was certainly big in my day, and that would be one way of doing it. If you can show you’re interested in the field, if you’ve been involved in outdoors activities, that is going to help. The universities themselves are thinking not only who are going to be the best students, but who’s going to suit the course. You can be brilliant, but can just be a bad fit in a particular subject so they’re looking for people who aren’t going to drop out and who aren’t going to be surprised by the things they’re expected to do. An aptitude for the outdoors is something you need to show. And the one thing that is equal to all the aspects of Earth Sciences is Three Dimensional Thinking. It is one of those things that all aspects of Geology have, from Crystallography right through to Mountain Building and structure. If you haven’t got it by the time you start your course, you’d better develop it by the time you finish, because it’s the one thing you really do need.

Helen: Those are really good suggestions, thank you. In your book you mention you spent a lot of time in Sweden and particularly on Gotland. Could you explain more about what you did? What was the focus of your research?

Ted: Yeah, sure. It turned out to be quite applicable to this book because one of the best things about Geology, is that you get to travel the world; and you go to places that, as a tourist, you probably wouldn’t go to. What other subject would get you to a place like Gotland? Three field seasons out there, and it’s simply terrific. And spending a couple of months each time, in a place which is fairly remote and fairly unknown, and just beautiful.

That was one of the things that attracted me to that PhD subject. The work was studying the Paleoecology of reefs, fossil reefs in the Silurian, some of the lowest rocks that are exposed in Gotland and it’s a shallowing sequence, where as the rocks were deposited in shallower and shallower waters the reefs diversified and became much richer in the species content until a particular moment when the Visby Vents at the bottom of the sequence exposed on Gotland give way to another unit called the Högklint where the reefs are suddenly much more huge.

The environmental changes that caused it was intersection of wave base, because gradually as the waters got shallower and shallower there was more light, more nutrients, more turbulence meant that more things could live there. And so that was a sort of gradual increase in diversity that suddenly took off and became exponential at the point where the reef started to be damaged physically by the environment and because wave bases are the deepest part of the sea where storm waves reach.

So every now and again if you are in the water above that level, a storm is going to come along and damage the reef. Break it up physically, and what that does is invoke a process that is well known to ecologists. The Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis which says basically if an environment is disturbed just a little, not too much, and not too frequently, then this has a stimulating effect on the diversity of the habitats there, and the physical disturbance creates new habitats.

Helen: You talked about this in your event.

Ted: Yes I did. Suddenly you get a cliff habitat, you get screes, you get bare rock, maybe some wetland developing in the bottom of it, and so on. And these physical habitats didn’t exist before and what that means is now you get species coming that are specialists in those areas. And what that does is then increase the biodiversity of that area just by physical disturbance. So this is what’s happening in the reefs that I’m studying, that as soon as they went into the unit above, and in other words the unit above was created by the fact that suddenly it was shallow enough for wave bases to hit the reefs, the reefs suddenly expanded.

They became the subject of my colleague Nigel Watts, who was working with me on the unit above. His rocks were on top of my rocks. He was a climber, and he used to have to dangle to look at his rocks, so his biggest hazard was dropping rocks off onto mine. My hazard in the field was having his rocks drop off onto my head so…. luckily enough none of those things happened, or not to any great degree because I wasn’t wearing a hard hat, but he was.

I was going to bring this into the book because the idea that in the Mid-Ordovician, the Earth was pelted with meteorites for about 10 million years ranging from the tiny to the absolutely enormous, and at that time far from being a mass extinction effect, this thing known as the Great Ordovician Biodiversity Event, a hitherto unexplained sudden increase in biodiversity. Could these two things be connected? Well, by Intermediate Disturbance Theory yes, it could be because if you pepper the earth with medium sized meteorites over a long period you’re going to be sterilising large areas. That will have the effect of allowing opportunistic species to come into those areas which they had previously been denied a foothold in and that increases local biodiversity. Which in evolutionary terms, then through time feeds through to increase in speciation.

So there is a theoretical possibility of connecting a bombardment with an increase in biodiversity because that was the nature of the beast. At the time there was nothing else nasty going on in the Mid-Ordovician. It was quite a nice time for life, whereas at the end of the Cretaceous where you had one enormous impact, you also had a lot of other things going on which were making conditions really difficult for life.

So meteorites can have two different meanings for life depending on the context in which they happened, and the major theme of the book because the consequences of a meteorite landing on the earth depend mostly upon the conditions prevailing on earth at the time and the context. That’s the same as ideas, because ideas occur to people all the time, but it’s only at certain points in history that they have their great consequences, and they are the two things I try to link in the book; describing the history of meteoritics alongside the development of this idea about the effects of meteorites on life.

Helen: Once you’d finished your PhD, did you go directly into journalism, or did you do research?

Ted:  After my PhD research I published quite a bit while I was looking for an academic job. I had no career plans apart from academic ones, and I think I’m one of the few people in the country who have something to thank Margaret Thatcher for because if it had not been for Margaret Thatcher I would probably have succeeded in getting a post-doctoral position and I would now be teaching in a university somewhere. I’m glad that didn’t happen. Mrs T made it impossible for anybody to get a post-doctoral position unless they’d already had one.

So I did what was expected of me; I went into industry and I worked in the oil business. Not for very long, it could have been three years. I worked for a consultancy company as a Carbonate Sedimentologist. I wasn’t one, but I knew more about it than the people who were employing me and that was enough! With a talent for literary imitation and a memory for words you can just about get everywhere in academia, but it doesn’t wash in industry.

So it wasn’t washing, and I suddenly realised that I’d become a Scientist! I’d been brought up a scientist, but I wasn’t one really, and I should perhaps have followed other instincts and done Languages or English. I’m glad I didn’t.

I’m glad things happened the way they did, because I decided to write about science. When I left the oil business I started to write for scientific magazines and to do book reviewing, and because I had a background in Geosciences I happened to be very lucky. New Scientist didn’t have anybody on staff to deal with Earth Sciences, which meant there was an opening for a freelance who would contribute that sort of material and that got me going.

Ted Nield

Helen: You’re good at explaining geological ideas.

Ted: Thank you very much.

Helen: Did you ever consider going into teaching?

Ted: Well, yes. Both my parents were teachers and I think they would have been happy for me to do anything in life except be a teacher. If you go back two generations on the Welsh side of my family you’ll find that they were miners, and the one thing that miners in the late 19th and early 20th century wanted for their children was that they should not go down the mines. My great grandfather was able to ensure that his son didn’t go down the mines, and he became a drapers assistant. Nice indoor work, nice hours, no heavy lifting, and then the next generation, my mother became a teacher and then the next generation is “do anything, but don’t become a teacher.”

Helen: Ah, yes…

Ted: So I was strongly discouraged from being a teacher and I’ve never actually wanted to be a teacher. I did want to be a university teacher at one stage and I’ve always loved explaining things and now I do it through the books, through my journalism, and that’s the way I like to do it best.

Helen: “Incoming” has a lot of history, about meteorites and how its been witnessed both by peasants and professors. Do you get to do a lot of research and travelling?

Ted: For this book, yes. I’ve been interested in meteorites for a long time but coming to work for the Geological Society reignited my interest in meteorites because I had the good fortune, and still have, to work alongside people like Joe McCall who is on the editorial board of my magazine. He has done a lot of work on meteorites and maintains an interest in them in his 91st year and he’s an amazing guy. He organised a big conference so I got to meet a lot of people, legends in geophysics, and I gradually got more and more interested in it.

I was looking for a subject for my second book for Granta, and I thought meteorites, and let’s combine this really interesting history with some hot new research, so all the basic structural ingredients for a popular science book were there.

But I’m not myself a specialist in meteoritics, although I picked up a lot just by writing about meteorites as a journalist. I did have a lot of research to do. I got 18 months in which to write the book, and as you do I didn’t write a word for six months. I sat down and read and read and just researched the history of Meteoritics. There was a lot of reading, rather more than for my first book, which was more or less stuff I already had in my head.

Helen: In the book you jump a lot from the Palaeontology/Paleoecology side and also into Astronomy and Physics. Is there a particular area of Geology you like more? Or is it equal?

Ted: I think it’s more equal. I used to be a very dedicated Palaeontologist and always thought of myself as a Palaeontologist when I was a PhD student and immediately afterwards. But very few people have the luxury of going through life and be that specialised all the time so you have to adjust, like when I went into the oil business I had to suddenly become a Sedimentologist. Then I developed an interest in global tectonics which is thinking at a much larger scale. I always had a tendency to think at a much smaller and smaller scale, and learning more and more about less and less and eventually knowing everything about nothing. A small joke about academia.

And then global tectonics sort of “swam into my ken” a bit, particularly with the first book “Supercontinent.” People would say “what are you doing now, apart from the magazine?” I’ll say I’ve developed an interest in global tectonics these days, and they’ll say “well that’s much more interesting!” Because its just bigger, you’ve got a bigger canvas and I’ve been trying to counteract this tendency of mine to get smaller and smaller and more and more specialised and retain a bigger look at things.

The reason I started to write books was partly encouragement from my friend Simon Winchester who I got to know through the Geological Society after he wrote his book “The Map That Changed The World.” Then he wrote a number of books which had Geological themes and I interviewed him a few times for my magazine, and he asked me once when we were descending the stairs “Have you ever thought of writing books, dear boy?” And I said “I’ve written a couple of textbooks, a lot of work and not much money” and he said “Oh, you should write on a broader canvas, dear boy.” I’m still grateful he said that because if someone like Simon Winchester says you should write a book, then you should probably think about it. And this whole thing about taking a broader look has been something I consciously attempted to do just to counteract my natural tendency to get a hand lens out and look at tiny things.

Helen: Another thing in your book is that you talk about the big differences between Geologists and Astronomers and how they struggle to see eye to eye. Will it always be like that or is there hope for change?

Ted Nield Ted: I think the different characteristics of people affect the sort of subjects that they study. I’m very lucky working at Burlington House because we have our neighbours, Chemists on one side, and we’ve got Botanists and Taxonomists on another, and then there’s the Astronomical Society, mostly Cosmologists and Physicists, and there are the Archeologists in the Society of Antiquaries.
I think people do the subjects in which they feel comfortable, and then those subjects reinforce them in those characteristics, so I think there’s something about Geologists that is a little bit more arm wavy and, look I’m doing it now…! And a little bit more arm wavy and a bit more adventurous and it’s the same with Archeologists.

Helen: Chicxulub. There’s so much debate about how much it actually helped with the mass extinction at the KT boundary. What is your personal opinion? Or are you trying to stay out of it?

Ted: My opinion doesn’t really count. What I’m interested in about Chicxulub is the debate over whether or not that is the smoking gun of the impact of the late Cretaceous that killed the dinosaurs. In other words, is it the nice pink ribbon on top of that beautiful scientific story? And the discovery of it from 1980 onwards, whether it is or isn’t, this is a side show to the main issue, because no one yet doubts seriously that there was a big impact at the end of the Cretaceous.

The only debate is whether or not Chicxulub is the smoking gun. Or is it another? Many impacts are often clustered since that happened in the Mid-Ordovician and it could well have happened in the late Cretaceous, so there may have been many bombardments at the end of the Cretaceous that we don’t know about.

Now, I suppose this is the journalist in me, but I like awkward people who just do not accept orthodoxies and I rather admire them, even though they may be wrong. It’s irrelevant whether they are right or wrong! It’s one of those things that make scientists not like the way science is covered, because journalists always tend to controversy.

Gerta Keller at Princeton has very colourfully held out against the orthodoxy that Chicxulub is the smoking gun for a long time now, and she says it’s three hundred thousand years too old. Most people don’t believe her, but this whole business has been an abject lesson in how orthodoxies fall and become re-established.

I suppose I’ve been helping Gerta Keller get her point across and to try and stimulate a bit of debate between those who believe that it is and those that believe it isn’t. Because they have stopped talking to each other now. I have refereed online debates between Gerta Keller and Jan Smit and in the end it comes down to that they disagree about certain objects and at that point there is no further way you can take the debate, you just have to go and find some more evidence.

My own personal view? Ah well, I just think about Heinrich Schliemann and finding the death mask of Agamemnon, which turned out the be 400 years too old. People who look for things tend to find what they’re looking for, and the object known as the death mask of Agamemnon, in the Athens Museum, will always be called the death mask of Agamemnon, even though we know it can’t possibly be. And I have a feeling that it may just turn out that Chicxulub is not the smoking gun, just because everybody wants it to be, because then the story is complete. I would like Gerta Keller to be proved right, but that’s just a personal bias.

Helen: For people who are studying Geology at GCSE, A level and so on; do you think they should be directed to a particular theory around Chicxulub and the KT-boundary? Or do you think it would be better if they were presented with the evidence and we say “here you go, this is what we have, you decide what you want to believe”?

Ted: I think at the moment the balance of specialist scientific belief in the Chicxulub crater is that it is the smoking gun, and that it is the mark of the impactor of the late Cretaceous, so when you’re learning a subject you have to learn what it is most people believe to be the case. It would be wrong to pretend that there is no debate about it, and one of the mistakes of science teaching in the past was to try and give the impression that this is all holy writ and that there is nothing new to be discovered; there is no debate about anything and that’s it, just a lot of stuff that’s already been worked out and there is no possibility of something exciting and new happening or anything being challenged!

And of course we know that this is nonsense, but the impression that school syllabuses give used to be that there is nothing new to be discovered. That justifiably turns a lot of people off science. Other things seem a lot more exciting, a lot more open to interpretation, a lot more, well, living really. Living that’s the thing, and science is living. So to teach just one side because its the orthodoxy is a mistake. Even if people don’t go on with science they ought to go away with the correct impression that everything is always up for grabs.

Helen: Ager’s silly diagram, which I really do love, handles the evidence for the possibility of all destructive phases combining and causing chaos. Considering we’ve been having so many earthquakes and tsunamis which have all been quite horrific, do you think that maybe another in-phase cycle is on the way? And if so, any chance of us surviving?

Ted: Well, I don’t think there is any chance of us surviving beyond a certain point because nothing lasts forever, and so we’ll become extinct at some point. The only possibility that we might not is if we shed the earthly bonds and launch into the cosmos like the science fiction writers would have us do. Maybe then we might escape, but if we stay here we’re definitely doomed.

All species are doomed. When that will happen is another matter, and I hope that people who read my book go away thinking that they are actually in control of this moment, because the biggest threat to the human race is the human race. So we don’t need to look any further than the person sitting next to us. It’s something we can do, to improve our chances of continued survival on our very convenient planet.

The planet, and this is the thing that I think Geologists can teach, the planet has never been constant. Geologists know this better than anybody else, that change is the only constant. The impression that the climate is suddenly changing because we’re doing something to it doesn’t mean that the climate has never changed before.

The climate is always changing and it may be that the current climatic change that we are seeing is partly natural, and many people who doubt and many who deny the role of humanity in causing this change would have us believe that this is all natural and that it is something to do with sun spots or that it is some kind of cycle that the Earth is going through. I find this a very frightening prospect frankly, because if this is something that the Earth is doing to us rather than us doing to the Earth, that I find a very much more frightening prospect because there isn’t any chance of doing anything about it.

Now if the Earth is going to do it to us then we’re doomed, and in any case this is the logical flaw. Yes, there are cycles in the Earth and I think Derek [Ager] is right that the probable cause of most mass extinctions were multiple, there is usually a prime cause and that is usually a Large Igneous Province somewhere. But when you combine that with other things, that then causes a mass extinction. It could be all kinds of other things, short coastline, anoxic oceans, even sunspot activity or orbital changes. All can have an effect, and they pull together and cause a mass extinction. But at the moment, the big thing pulling to a mass extinction is us.

It causes people to take a big message away from my book, that we don’t need to fear the Earth, nor do we need to fear for the Earth, because if we are trying to safe the Earth, to reduce our emissions, we’re not doing this for the Earth because the Earth has been through much worse all on it’s own. The Earth will survive you know and life will survive. It’ll just be different life, and it won’t include us. No, we’re doing this all for ourselves. We want to maintain things in a condition that is convenient for our species, but the world was not made to have us in it, so there is no expectation that it should always be convenient for us to live here on this planet. It just happens to be that way now and we ought to do everything we can to make sure it stays like that for as long as possible.

Helen: Films like “The Core”, “Sunshine” and “Armageddon”; do you feel that they’ve compromised too much for the sake of entertainment? Should they have included more science, or is that much artistic license all right?

Ted: OK, let’s take the impact ones… Deep Impact and Armageddon. I think my main grievance with those is that they’re going to blow the thing up, and blowing the thing up by sending Bruce Willis on a rocket. All that business is very exciting but probably a very stupid thing to do. There are however other science fiction scenarios that are perfectly plausible that you could deploy in the event of an incoming asteroid that was detected in enough time and they would involve things such as: giving it a nudge and pushing it into a different orbit, and you would do that very gently; you could paint one side of it black; you could put solar sails on it; you could attach ion engines to it. You know, something which would gradually nudge it out of its dangerous orbit, and postpone the problem or even eliminate it. But that’s a lot less exciting than having a big bomb go off.

Those films have maybe given the idea that yes, we can deal with incoming asteroids, which we can, but that we would do that by blowing them up! Which we wouldn’t, because it would do exactly what happens in one of those films and you’d get lots of impacts instead of one. So thats my quarrel with those films.

“The Core” was a brilliant film! It has become cult viewing amongst Geology undergraduates. I think partly because of its total absurdity, and I think it raises many issues and I love the fact that this marvellous vessel can fly through the mantle of the Earth making a large hole and never leaving behind any spoil. That’s terrific, and the fact that it manages to do it at all is amazing. It raises this idea of how do you really get Geology into Government, and again this is science fiction.

WWI was Chemistry’s war, with the Haber process and things like that, Nitrate explosives. It was Chemistry that made WWI possible. And that’s why Chemistry became part of Government, because as soon as you can make lethal weapons, Government takes you very seriously indeed.

WWII was Physics’ war. Physics was a small, arcane pursuit until the possibility of nuclear weapons came along, at which point it became massively funded by Governments all round the world and in exchange for building weapons, Physics got large and bigger colliders to investigate the structure of matter. You need one to have the other, you couldn’t possibly have that kind of expenditure in civil research if you hadn’t given something on the other side, like the military capability that nuclear weapons provide.

What you see in “The Core” is the possibility of a Geological Weapon of Mass Destruction, and if such a thing was ever to exist, God forbid, then that would ensure that the third world war would be Geology’s war. I don’t think this is a path we want to go down really!

Helen: You’ve written two books, one on tectonic movement and now the other about extraterrestrial threats. Do you have another book planned? Glaciers perhaps?

Ted: Yes, I want to come back to Earth in my next book in some way. I’m not sure how this would be. It may be two books, and I don’t want to say too much, but it’s more to do with people’s relationship with the rocks that they live on, and how that’s changed in recent history.

People used to be very connected to the rocks that they lived on. When I was a kid, if you wanted to keep warm you had to bring coal in from outside, and that gave you an appreciation of rocks. I grew up in a house which was built from bricks that were made in a clay pit within two miles. The mortar was made out of the ash that came from the same clay pit. The farmhouse that had stood before that house was built from penance and stones, quarried locally so probably from within 100 yards.

Now of course, transport has become easy due to another Geological resource, Petroleum, and you can get worktops from China and your bricks come hundreds of miles from Oxfordshire, and everybody’s lost touch with where things come from, because we now have some very huge holes in the ground in some very small places. We used to have lots and lots of holes in and around everywhere. We have lost touch with the rocks that we live on, and our appreciation for how important they are and what that means for the future. I don’t quite yet know if this will go into the Chemistry about the environment or if that’s a different book, but something that’s a little bit more close to home.

Helen: That sounds interesting! You once said that you’re going to continue working until it becomes unnecessary and that you’re about three fifths of the way there.

Ted: Ah, yes!

Ted Nield Helen: Does that have a unit of measurement? Perhaps by how much you’ve made? How do you get to that point?

Ted: Well, what I was saying there, I work for other people three days of the week, whereas I used to work full time. You could also say I’m three fifths of the way towards retirement, but of course in my other two days I work for myself. If I were to suddenly write a book that sold in, what are the units for sales? A Rowling probably. If I could sell two or three Rowlings, then I would be able to devote all of my time to working for myself and writing my books.

Everything in life is a compromise, and I’m very lucky that I have a compromise between editing a magazine in Geology and writing books about Geology, because the two feed each other. No, I don’t suppose the two feed each other. The magazine feeds me with ideas. Lots of stuff comes across my desk and I have time to think about these things, and some things stick and some don’t. My first two books have had some origin in my work for Geoscientist magazine and I think the same will be true of my future books. I don’t want to break up this partnership. It is a matter of balance and I think at the moment the one I have is about right.

Helen: Finally, we know an awful lot about the Earth now. We know its composition, we know its rough age, and other things such as how it flips poles every few million years. Is there more that can be discovered? Or is that it? Have we found out everything?

Ted: Oh, it never is that. I mean, at the end of the 19th century they thought that Physics was done and how wrong were they? So no, there is never going to be an end to it. It’s going to go on and on, because the process of research is one of finding out how much there is yet to find out so. Though what it is? Ah well! Maybe I’ll have to write a book about that some day.

And that’s all. We’re doomed, and it’s mostly our own faults, but whatever we do, we shouldn’t send Bruce Willis off to bomb any impacting celestial bodies.

Once we’d found Mrs Nield, who must have wondered if her husband had been kidnapped, we had a quick photo session outside with some photogenic flower window boxes, and then we said goodbye and were off.

(All photos © Ann Giles, except 1st photo which is © Helen Giles)
  1. I think I’m like Ted… one of those geology afficionados who can’t count. I found that geology at my school attracted more of those who were artistic and creative at heart – because they realised they’d be getting out in the open air, as well as talking about dinosaurs, asteroids and planets. I think it’s the most aesthetic science.

    Good interview!

  2. Thanks Nick! It’s something I noticed in my Geology A-level too… a lot of them were either musicians and artists or they were the biologists and chemists.

    I think I was a little odd in that respect!

  1. Pingback: Ted Nield Interview « Helen's Guide To The Galaxy

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