My eureka moment: Rocks and hard places

Mike Petterson's geological expertise has seen him travel the world, but perhaps his greatest eureka moments have come in Afghanistan, amid his efforts to help rebuild a shattered country

February 11, 2010

My first eureka moment came when I was a boy in County Durham, walking to the bus stop for the six-mile journey to school. It involved daydreaming and staring at a very familiar road as cars whizzed by and pedestrians crossed. My mind dwelt on an Andy Warhol-style observational experiment, where I recorded the passage of vehicles over a 24-hour period on the same stretch of road. Occasionally I would glimpse images of the space-time-place continuum: I realised the intimate relationship between space on the road and the presence or absence of phenomena within a specific volume of space, then translated that thought back in time, Doctor Who-style. Glimpses of emptiness? Oneness? Or idle daydreams? I could never decide, but I knew neurone connections were being made aplenty.

Let's move forward in time to my PhD research in Kohistan, North Pakistan. It's hard to believe in these Ryanair days of cheap shorthaul journeys, but my first flight, aged 22, was the trek from London to Islamabad. Arriving amid the smells, sights and sounds of Pakistan was the beginning of a journey of personal discovery experienced by every traveller with an open and inquiring mind.

Scientifically, my mission was to investigate how the continental crust of part of the Karakoram-Himalaya mountain chain evolved over time. My personal eureka contribution to the grand picture was small but significant (to me at least).

Some 80 million years ago, India began to drift northwards across an ocean that existed before the modern Indian Ocean. About 55 million years ago, it began to collide with Asia, ultimately forcing its way underneath that continent, forming the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau and thickening the crust to 80km (normally continental crust is 30km thick). India still underthrusts Asia at the rate of 3-5cm a year. The collision of these tectonic plates hurled up 8,000m mountains, filled Northern India and Bangladesh with some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world, and ground rocks together with such force and momentum that large earthquakes shook the world and minerals melted.

The Himalayas represent an endpoint in the global tectonic cycle where plates are born under the oceans as submerged mountains, transported thousands of kilometres over millions of years and then forced down submarine trenches at subduction zones until whole oceans are consumed and continents collide. Of course, being a cycle, there is no "endpoint", as during later times continents may be ripped apart and new ocean plates born.

Plate tectonics is a discovery of the highest order. It explains how the Earth functions at a level never dreamt of before the 1960s and 1970s. My small contribution in North Pakistan demonstrated how small crustal units between large plates (with an origin similar to the island arcs of the Caribbean) can get caught up and influence continental collision in a number of ways - a little like small buffer states annoying superpowers fighting for global supremacy. My research shed new light on the nature and chemistry of the entrapped island arc, and the fact that it formed over 70 million years of geological time.

More fundamentally, my personal eureka moments revolved around poverty, belief systems and cycles. Anyone who has spent time in South Asia cannot fail to see the tremendous, grinding, agonising poverty that is inflicted upon millions of people. The gaps between the haves and the have-nots in Asia and between the rich and the poor world have convinced me that peace will be possible only by sharing our planet's wealth much more equitably.

In relation to belief systems, if there is only one God, why do believers in different camps spend so much time "proving" their tribal thinking is right and that others are wrong? And in terms of cycles, partly through gaining a deeper understanding of plate tectonics and partly by reading Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics (1975), I began to see the cyclicity and interchangeability of matter over space and time: for example, the transformation of one rock unit into another as tectonic conditions change, and the interplay between the deep (mantle) and shallow (crust) Earth.

On a gross macroplanetary scale, plate tectonics teaches us about the "inter-being" or interchangeability of type and form between energy, matter, differing phases and types of matter and substances, and the cyclical interplay between rocks, minerals, liquids, fluids and energy over time.

From Pakistan to Penrith and onwards to the English Lake District. For several years I worked on mapping the rocks and deposits of England's most rugged landscape. It's difficult to believe that a full and modern geological understanding of somewhere as familiar as William Wordsworth's Lakeland wasn't achieved until the 1980s and 1990s. There had been hundreds of years of investigation, but it tended to be localised (in detail) or superficial (in generic understanding).

The central part of Cumbria comprises several kilometres of complex volcanic strata some 450 million years old. These deposits resulted from massive eruptions that extruded such large volumes of material that the resulting crustal voids collapsed to produce steep-sided basin-like structures called "calderas", filled in by several kilometres of rocks called ignimbrites. Human history has never witnessed such large-scale devastation as that recorded in the rocks of Lakeland: even eruptions such as Krakatoa, Pinatubo, Montserrat and Mount St Helens are small fry in comparison.

It took the fusion of modern concepts in disciplines such as sedimentology, physical volcanology, geochemistry and geophysics to crack the Lake District's geological code, as well as the experience gained from recent volcanic eruptions. But bit by bit, a team of volcanically minded geologists unravelled the geo-mystery. These eureka moment(s) involved the application of caldera-volcanic models, which provided a sound and holistic intellectual foundation for the understanding of Lakeland. Cumbria is now one of the world's classic natural laboratories for researching the deep magmatic processes within the plumbing systems of volcanoes.

Fast forward, bypassing several time zones, to February 2003 in Kabul, Afghanistan. My mission was to spend a few weeks with Juma Mohammad Mohammadi, the Afghan Minister for Mines and Industry, and his team of advisers, to put together a project proposal for funding from the UK Department for International Development.

Mohammadi was rather frail. As a young engineer in his twenties he had been a minister in the pre-Soviet Afghan Government. The 1979 invasion led Mohammadi, along with millions of his fellow nationals, to exile in Iran, Pakistan and the West. He rose through the ranks of the World Bank in Washington to become a senior mining adviser. With the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, Mohammadi and thousands of comfortably off Afghan professionals responded to the cries for help from their shattered home country.

I worked solidly for several weeks, meeting ministers, advisers, scientists, engineers, aid workers and so on in an effort to gain sufficient understanding of Afghanistan's challenges and development aspirations to enable me to write a persuasive enough proposal to win several million pounds of funding.

The country was devastated. Kabul reminded me of images of Berlin in 1945 and bore the many scars of intra-Mujahidin urban warfare. Everywhere you looked there were piles of rubble, collapsed houses, office blocks that were shells of a former existence - drab greyness amid the snow-clad splendour of the surrounding Hindu Kush. The worst tragedy was the condition of the people, ravaged and brutalised by decades of war, poverty, cruelty and hunger, desperately hoping for better times, struggling to survive the bitter cold of the day with little shelter.

I spent much of my time inside the war-torn hulk of a Soviet-style set of laboratories and offices that housed the Afghan Geological Survey. There was no heat, no power and no water. Many windows were shattered, copper wires hung from the bare walls and a stinking pit served as a toilet for 500 demoralised workers.

I met with the senior staff, explained why I was there and asked about their hopes, dreams, ambitions and worries. They looked at me with the eyes of people who had seen too many false dawns and foreigners bearing virtual gifts and promises. I spoke of projects, rebuilding, regeneration, new work, new science. They patiently listened, almost displaying pity for my perceived wasted journey and time.

After three weeks, with the help of innumerable inputs, I had put together a proposal for the Ministry of Mines and the Afghan Geological Survey. The big ideas involved generating income for Afghanistan through peaceful activities, rather than war and narcotics. The idea was to implement sustainable-development principles: explore, define and encourage the development of mineral resources; digitise, model and map decades of analogue data sets; retrain staff; activate a programme of research; and rebuild offices, laboratories and infrastructure. The key players signed up to the proposal and I left Kabul at the end of February, confident that we had put together a winner.

Then tragedy struck. Mohammadi and his four advisers were killed as their plane crashed into the Arabian Sea, 100km south of Karachi. I still vividly remember phoning Muhammad Olomi, one of the advisers with whom I had worked most closely, and hearing a telephone ring from the sea floor. Such talent, all gone - disaster, mourning, grief and deep sadness.

The best memorial for them was to pursue the proposal, ultimately funded to the tune of £4 million over four years. The project brought almost 40 British scientists to Kabul, plus a variety of work and research streams, refurbished and re-equipped offices and laboratories, staff training and motivation, links with industry, and the international tendering of one of the world's largest copper deposits - a positive legacy for Mohammadi.

And yes ... I nearly forgot the eureka moments. The biggest must be the shocking realisation that so many millions in the world live with war, famine, degrading poverty and fear. We read about it and see countless images of it in the media, but the penny drops only when it stares you in the face and touches your soul. Most people I met in Afghanistan had lost family members, neighbours or close friends; many had been tortured and abused. The chasm in the quality of life experienced in the ivory tower of the UK university and among Kabul's ruins is mind-numbingly depressing.

And the final eureka? True peace between nations of disparate cultures, creeds and standards of living cannot be generated by rapid top-down communications and military campaigns (although they may help). Peace is made through hundreds and thousands of highly personalised connections, communications, shared experiences and joint laughter. This is how humans connect, trust and work together.

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