Drifter – learning about Europe

Autobiography, Europe’s human history and the geological processes of Continental Drift are brought together in this everyday tale of a scientist’s most notable life experiences.  Each chapter takes the author’s life story to different locations in Europe. He compares his own experiences at each place to events in the local political history and then to the geological history of the same region. Unexpectedly, these comparisons show many common features. Pictures emerge of how Europe has changed through the years, with crises and peaceful pleasures: patterns that are familiar in our own lives. There are trends in their stability, catastrophe and progression at each place, and these reactions to events show up through the very different time scales involved. Biggest of all have been the geological changes in Europe over more than 500 million years. Best known were the reactions to events in local history of the last 500 years. And there were counterparts in the author’s own life through the last 50 years.

1. Bradgate, Leicestershire My own family tragedy: cold picnics in 1950s Charnwood Forest, school and college, escape to London. The tragedy of Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554) at Bradgate Park: her marriage in 1553, Queen of England and execution 1554. The local rock outcrops: catastrophic Precambrian events of Iceball Earth 715-595 million years ago, a schoolboy discovery at Bradgate, fossils named Charnia 575 million years old. In the 1950s, Wegener’s theory of Continental Drift had little support from the main scientific community.

2. The Pennines A chance in 1964 to do research; job hunting in a phone box; teaching biology and evolution. I want my own place. Hard village life in N Derbyshire; local traditions of well-dressing in the limestone hills of Derbyshire. Drift in the Pennines; fossils in collapsed caves, 5 million year dating and the Redwood Forests of England; similar evidence in Ireland. The use of new technology to drive discovery.

3. North Sea  My professional career begins in environmental science; Industry or academia. Selecting research projects, helping students and society. My own family drifts apart and dies. Recognition of the British Isles in Europe; 1960s North Sea Oil Exploration; the changing shape of Europe. 1960s breakthrough of the drifters – Plate Tectonics; Europe’s tectonic history.

4. Looking to East Europe My trips to Soviet Russia and Czechoslovakia in the 1960s; fear and friendships, Last Year in Marienbad – I go with Biddy to Prague. The Cold War in Europe 1945-1990. Browncoal of the Bohemian Basin; big international projects; tectonic and political problems in Central Europe.

5. Exploring Under London Too much going-on in my life: family, career, linking other disciplines. At least statistics help work out climate change evidence from holes in the ground at The British Library, deep sea drilling ships. We have 50 million-year-sequences through sediments; now there’s Cross Rail and even cellars under houses. London and Paris in the tropics; mangrove swamps, crocodiles and sharks’ teeth.

6. The Atlantic River Another escape from fixed routines, this to explore fantasies of northern latitudes. The drive of industry; my NATO Arctic research workshop, Ocean Drilling Program, Mull, Faroes, Norway. American connections to Europe 50 million years ago. The mid-Atlantic ridge and the Brito-Arctic Igneous Province. I find Atlantis.

7. A Greek Island My family grows-up; on leaving fast-moving academia for an old-fashioned Greek island; I meet locals like Vangelis, A plate boundary stretches from Mount Olympus in the north to plutons and myths near Crete; north Cycladic drifting 35-20 million years ago. There are no fossils here but Andros is at a subduction plate boundary.

8. Olympic Park  London Docks and Passmore Edwards to West Ham College to Olympic Park, docklands and development, war from the east, containerisation.  From the end of the last ice age 0.1 million years ago: Thames estuary and tributaries, British Isles break from mainland Europe. Events after the last ice age, 0.1 million years ago, to my feel for East London from 50 years ago.


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