Sunday, 10 October 2010

40 Years of Earth & Planetery Sciences at the OU

This week has seen a significant anniversary at the Open University. It is now forty years since the start of the Department of Earth Sciences at the Uni. The late Professor Ian Gass lead the way with the guiding principle that 'excellent research breeds excellent teaching'.

To celebrate this milestone, the department held a 2 day conference followed by an Open Day on Saturday 9th October, and I managed to make the short journey down to the campus in Milton Keynes on Saturday. There were lots of things going on - some activities to stop the kids getting too bored, such as panning for gold and making plaster casts of fossils and even 'dressing up as a scientist' and having your picture taken! Tempting, I have to say, but I resisted. I was there for the talks. Just to be sure I booked to hear all the listed speakers with one in particular who was simply a 'must see'. More of that later.

First up was Dr Mark Davies, an ex OU PhD student and now working for ARKeX, a geophysical survey company. His talk was an interesting look at geogravity and how gravity changes according to mass. He showed how techniques for measuring these variations are used to locate oil reserves. Interesting stuff, but not my thing really. Exploration geology is not really where my interest lies, though it might have been if I had studied geology back in the '80s as I'd originally planned.

Next up was meant to be Dr Phil Bland, another ex OU student, talking about the oriigin of meteorites in the solar system, but unfortunately he had been taken ill and couldn't attend. Rather than stay for the 'emergency stand-on, I decided to have an early lunch break.

Then we had Professor Monica Grady (pictured left) of the Open University, with a talk entitled 'Life on Mars - if not, why not'. Monica, it turns out was the author of part of Book 8 from the OU Science Foundation course S104, that I successfully completed last year! So this talk was a good recap on what I'd learnt

The next speaker, Professor John Zarnecki (right) proved a wonderfully engaging bloke. He ran through his whole working life in space exploration, having been associated with many of the major planetary exploration missions over the last few decades including the Cassini Huygens mission that studied the surface of Titan. Best of all was his hilarious account of his desperate and sadly for him unsuccessful attempts to get into space himself on the various European Space Agency missions - proudly displaying his rejection letter from ESA! Great stuff!

The next guy was very much the 'Main Event' and needed no introduction. Professor Iain Stewart (pictured below) of Plymouth University and inspiring presenter of 'Earth:The Power of the Planet' and several other superb TV series in recent years proved to be even better in the flesh as it were, than he is on the telly. After some initial 'ribbing' from the compere for his NOT having done any OU courses, he went on to give a superb talk, loosely based on his most recent TV series 'How Earth Made Us'. What shone out like a beacon, was his near encyclopaedic knowledge of geologists of the past such as James Hutton. His delivery was slick, confident and utterly absorbing. His students at Plymouth Uni must have a ball, that's all I can say!

Follow that! Well for some obscure reason, someone thought it a good idea to have 'a word from one the sponsors'. In this case it was a guy from Thermo Fisher Scientific, suppliers of scientific instruments. It wasn't a sales pitch we were told, so that begs the question why? No idea myself! Odd choice!

Anyway, to wrap up the day we had Dr David Rothery (pictured left) of the OU, who related some hilarious anecdotes regarding his work as the media contact at the OU throughout the recent 'ash cloud crisis' during the Eyjafjallojokull eruption earlier this year. This guy was a hoot, and definitely didn't take himself too seriously! Rather than recount his stories, just go to You Tube and enter his name and look at the films of his media interviews with Sky TV and others. I particular, look out for the 'amazing disappearing car' in a Sky TV interview and the regular appearances of his little box of volcanic ash! Brilliant!

So a good day was had by all I think and highlighted the need to restore Open University Open Days which were a regular thing in days past I believe. Can't think why they were stopped.

Cheers for now,