Monday 28 December 2015

648 billion sunrises

One of my students, who is big into geology had been recommended a book 648 billion sunrises: a geological miscellany of Ireland by Patrick Roycroft.  As it happens, I met Roycroft at a memorial service to Mary Mulvihill in the Autumn. He had worked with her Ingenious Tours company that took tourists round Dublin showing them that we have a rich and fascinating scientific heritage even if we only have one scientific Nobel Prize - ETS Walton. Some folk are claiming 2015 Nobellist William C. Campbell as "Irish" because he was born in Derry in 1930 and has been a US Citizen since 1962, but I don't think that's proper. The Ingenious Tours gig is a welcome antidote to the literary heritage that most people bang on about when they think of Ireland: Swift, Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Heaney. Q1.  Which four of those seven secured a Nobel Prize for Literature 'for Ireland'.  Q2. Which of them was about as Irish as Chaim Herzog, President of Israel, was Irish?

ANNyway, I bypassed Amazon and went straight to a Galway bookshop that has embraced cloud-shopping with a limited inventory, mostly of Irish interest. They ship post-free within Ireland.  Two copies, one for me + one for student, were winging their way to work within 24 hours. The book is what it says on the tin: a miscellany of stuff which Roycroft (and his editors) thinks is a ) related to Irish geology and b) can be abstracted from his head with a little pressure and a little research. It is accordingly a little like a blog and, like The Blob, could definitely benefit from a ruthless editor.  Not everything that crosses our minds when we muse on a life-time in science is worth going down in print. What seems hilarious at 0200hrs when you're half a bottle down, can seem labored or arch in the cold light of day.  I wrote a piece a couple of years back suggesting suitable underwear for every country in Europe.  It was in the nature of satire on the idea that every US state has a state bird as well as a state flag.

In all seriousness and with a wodge of pretension, Roycroft has decided that each county on the Island of Ireland should have a geological title "Pegmatite County", "Marble County" as well as a county rock, mineral, and fossil. Most of the Irish counties have nicknames already, few having to do with the local rocks. This idea is a useful vehicle for surfing the landscape and picking out some interesting facts about our prehistory and it's impact on modern life.  But some counties are bigger than others and some are much more diverse in geology and fossils and some are both. So the depauperate counties are given rather more attention than they deserve and a lot of interest stuff is left on the spoil heap because that county has something more glittery.  It's a business model that elects the US Senate: where tiny Rhode Island has the same representation as Texas and New York.

The other interesting thing is a history of the formation of Ireland that goes back 1.8 billion years. I knew a bit about this: that the NW of the island and the SE have very different geological origins. And I was also aware that a supercontinent called Pangaea split into Gondwanaland in the South and Laurasia in the North . . . but I've never really nailed when that happened. It shouldn't come as a surprise that this massive continental drift had happened before with similar sized chucks of real estate. What is amazing is that geologists can discover traces of these increasingly ancient events by scoping the landscape with scientific rigour and the imagination and creativity most people associate with poets. You can make geology (and indeed biology) a tedious exercise in stamp collecting or you can put the data together with a lifetime's experience and come up with something truly unexpected and probably true.  We met this with Marie Tharp revealing the Mid Atlantic Ridge by mapping her transects across the ocean floor.

And it was delightful to meet local polymath Rev Samuel Haughton again in his capacity as the TCD Chair of Geology rather than as a dilettante of human hanging. We only get 2 pages on him, however, and an equivalent amount on two collateral relatives who were also Professors in the following century.  That's what I mean by a little light research to fill out a common-place book or a blog.

Verdict: a definite buy for your Uncle who is into Irish Science and Technology.

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