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Going back to ‘Deep Time’ and forward to extra-terrestrial life: geology in the 21st century

What are the effects of supervolcanic eruptions? How to cope with life in earthquake zones? What lessons does ‘Deep Time’ offer for tackling climate change today? These are just some of the questions leading Earth scientists will address at Sedgwick 200: Earth Sciences in the 21st Century and beyond, on Saturday 22 September 2018.

Adam Sedgwick was a Fellow of Trinity and a key figure in the founding and evolution of the discipline of geology. 2018 marks 200 years since he was appointed Woodwardian Chair of Geology at Cambridge. Established in 1731 by John Woodward, this chair was the first professorship in Earth Sciences and the beginning of geological studies at Cambridge.

Trinity Fellow, Professor Marian Holness

Trinity Fellow and Professor of Earth Sciences, Marian Holness, said the Bicentenary Meeting at the Department of Earth Sciences would introduce Sedgwick’s legacy before talks on the state of Earth Sciences’ research today and the importance of the discipline to our future.

The idea is to showcase the huge advances we have made recently in understanding how planets work and to demonstrate the breadth and excitement of the Earth Sciences to as broad an audience as possible.

We will hear about the effects of supervolcanic eruptions (large enough to influence global climate), how to cope with normal life in an earthquake-prone area, and how mankind is affecting the planet. Then we’ll go beyond Earth with talks about geological exploration of Mars and the search for extra-terrestrial life.

The event is open to all, with talks pitched at sixth-form level and beyond. ‘Anyone curious about the earth and other planets should enjoy it,’ says Professor Holness, who studies ancient volcanic rock in Greenland and Scotland and compares that with recent material from active volcanoes in the Aegean and Iceland.

For those wondering about career paths after a geology and Earth sciences degree, there are increasing opportunities beyond the mining and construction industries. Professor Holness said:

A geological training is becoming more and more important as we face the consequences of our activities on the planet. The sort of climatic changes we have caused have happened many times in the Earth’s history, and it is only by looking back at what happened millions of years ago that we can come up with a sensible prediction of what might happen as a consequence of our activities. Geology gives us access to ‘Deep Time’!

The observational nature of geology provided a good foundation for all sorts of jobs, she said. ‘Geologists are trained to work with incomplete evidence or highly complex data-sets, finding ways of simplifying problems down to the basic physics or chemistry, or to systematise data to find patterns and identify the underlying controls. These observational and analytical skills are useful for many careers, and in fields you might not expect, such as the Civil Service.’

Trinity Fellow, Adam Sedgwick

The Bicentenary Meeting continues the public-orientated ethos of geology’s founding fathers. Among Woodward’s legacies was a small collection of rocks, minerals and fossils. As Woodwardian Chair, one of Sedgwick’s duties was to provide free public access to the collection and he set aside some hours each week for this purpose.

But Sedgwick did more than that. He grew the collection considerably and soon it became too large for the couple of rooms assigned to it in Old Schools. So he raised the money to build a proper museum – the result was the Cockerell Building on Senate House Passage; Sedgwick took great pride in showing people around the lower floor which housed the museum.

On Sedgwick’s death, it was resolved to create a proper memorial to him in the form of a much larger building dedicated to Earth Sciences – in 1904 the Sedgwick Museum on Downing Street opened, with offices to create the Department of Earth Sciences.

Tickets for start at £25 for students and £50 for standard tickets.

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