Q&A with Stephen Sparks

We speak to a geologist whose work on volcanic eruptions has earned him the equivalent of a Nobel prize for the earth sciences

February 12, 2015

Source: Courtesy of Professor Stephen Sparks

I worry about what the world will be like in 50 years’ time. We are likely living through a dramatic environmental change caused by us [that] may lead to our downfall

Stephen Sparks, professorial research fellow at the University of Bristol, is a geologist whose work has improved our ability to predict deadly volcanic eruptions. In June, he will receive the 2015 Vetlesen Prize, an award considered to be the Nobel prize of the earth sciences.

Where and when were you born?
15 May 1949, in Harpenden, Hertfordshire

How has this shaped you?
My parents moved to Chester in 1954, so my upbringing was on the Wirral. Major influences on my early life were an accident-prone childhood, the loss of my mother at 12 after a long illness, being brought up with my brother by a devoted father and exploring the mountains and caves of North Wales as a teenager.

What were your immediate reactions to winning the award?
Huge surprise and shock: I had no idea that I was being considered.

What is the significance of winning such an award?
The Vetlesen Prize highlights the earth sciences sensu lato, which are not recognised by the Nobel prize. The list of past winners is a who’s who of 20th century earth scientists so it’s a great honour to be included. This is the key science of the coming decades to address many of the great challenges of a sustainable Earth.

Are academics concerned with gongs, or do they just focus on interesting and impactful research?
Sports stars like gold medals, actors like Oscars, novelists like winning the Booker Prize and musicians like winning prestigious competitions. Scientists are no different. Most take intrinsic pleasure from their work and continued creative endeavours: accolades are nice but not the main reason people strive to excel. I have an impression that sports stars and artists would not be asked such a question, reflecting a puzzlingly different view of science within British culture.

The study of volcanoes would suggest there is certain amount of risk attached to your work. Have you ever had any nervy moments during fieldwork?
Not on a volcano, but I was close to being flattened by a huge ore truck in a mine. I was also in a tricky situation once in a freak snowstorm in a remote area of the Andes, but all ended well.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Play football for Liverpool.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
My response is indirect and aimed at early career scientists. Don’t take criticism in science personally as criticism is essential to the progress of science, and don’t be personal in the way you are yourself critical of others. For late-career scientists: when reviewing others’ work, try to remember what it was like when you were a young and inexperienced scientist.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Geology is a major passion and life calling so it’s hard to beat doing your hobby for a living. Worst? Anything to do with ill-thought- out bureaucracy and admin systems that make doing science harder and teaching less enjoyable.

What keeps you awake at night?
With a new grandson I worry about what the world will be like for him in 50 years’ time. Geology shows that there have been very large and rapid changes in the Earth’s environment and major species extinctions as a consequence. We are likely living through such a dramatic change caused by us [that] may lead to our downfall. The discourse of most of the world’s leaders in terms of conventional economics of relentless growth is delusional, detached from reality and ignores the evidence of geology.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Normal for a student in London in 1968-71. Long hair, greatcoat, mildly left views, going to Cream’s last concert, the occasional scented cigarette, and on the academic front great times on geology field trips with Imperial College.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Asking my future wife, Ann, at Lime Street Station, Liverpool, about the way to get to Birkenhead (not a very inventive chat-up line). She turned out to be a student at a Catholic teacher training college in London near Imperial College.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
Actually I would be secretary of state for education for the day and move the post-14 education of all young people to a broader baccalaureate system, scrapping GCSEs and A levels. Universities would then receive students with a broader and more rounded education and the UK would not disadvantage its young people, and in the long term our national competitiveness, by making them specialise so early.


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