Prof-Turned-'Rock Star' Makes Geology Cool

Call it a mid-life crisis. Call it geology on fire.

Whatever it was, something compelled Iain Stewart to leave his job as a college professor in London 12 years ago and essentially stay unemployed with a wife and two children while he figured out the next step in his career.

Passionate about earth science – most particularly Holocene geological change as it relates to earthquakes, volcanism, tsunamis and sea level changes – Stewart wanted to excite people beyond the confines of his classroom. As a former child actor in a 1978 television series called Huntingtower, a BBC Scotland adaptation of author John Buchan’s 1922 novel of the same title, Stewart wanted to return to Scotland and get back into television.

He approached the BBC with an idea in 2002, and soon became a “rock star” in his own right in the United Kingdom and beyond.

The turn of events unfolded almost like a sitcom:

Television Executives: “So, you want to do a series of programs about geology?”

Stewart: “Yes.”

Television Executives brainstorm about possible shows on ancient architecture.

Stewart, interjecting: “It’s not archaeology. It’s about rocks.”

Television Executives, looking perplexed: “You want to do a show about stones?”

For Stewart, it was a defining moment.

“I realized how people saw geology – that it was just about stones. I spent 12 years teaching geology, and I never thought about it from the public’s perspective before,” he said.

“There are not too many geological programs on television,” he added. “If people don’t study this at a university, where will they get their information?”

The executives continued to listen to Stewart’s proposal and became intrigued when he explained how the geosciences touch just about every aspect of human life. He reminded them that the Earth has 4.5 billion years of history, all filled with intriguing stories to tell.

Events and activities similar to the then-recent Japanese earthquake, Russian meteor strike, Florida sinkholes and the hydraulic fracturing boom began to turn into 60-minute episodes in the minds of the executives, and a handshake with Stewart sealed the deal.

All program makers needed to do was figure out a way to translate the technical into television.

Making a Connection

Stewart, having already left his post at Brunel University, took on the challenge of figuring out how to communicate information to the average person whose interests typically don’t dial down into the specifics of deepwater drilling.

“The safety record in offshore technology is second to none. That might be interesting, but it’s not going to make someone say, ’Oh, my God,’” Stewart said.

That’s when Stewart’s education began. He needed to establish a baseline for defining the public’s understanding of the geosciences as well as spark an interest in the sciences in a brand new medium.

For this he relied on the BBC’s mainstream program makers and plunged into his second career as a host for a major television series on nature, history and the state of the planet – all with geologic premises.

“People are skeptical to a certain extent, especially of those in the industry,” he said, referring to experts formally discussing topics such as subduction zones and horizontal well casing on the news and in mainstream journals.

“We try too hard to bring people into our world,” he added.

Part of the blueprint for Stewart’s success occurs just as his show begins.

“The first five to 10 minutes of the programs are making me seem like I’m an interesting person and a friendly person that you would want to spend time with,” he said. “Then, you have to connect with what people are already interested in.”

While the average person may not care about the differentiation between sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rocks, their attitudes may change when they learn those various rocks are responsible for the Egyptian pyramids, Greek columns and ancient Roman domes, Stewart said.

“I unravel the Earth’s history,” he said. “But pop TV can’t be more than a shop window. There has to be a welcome sign that draws someone closer.

“My bit is very basic,” he continued. “Academia and industry can provide the next level of access.”

It didn’t take long before all citizens of Britain began learning about geology on their own terms.

Neither did it take long for Stewart to receive recognition for his contributions to popularizing geography and earth sciences by the Royal Geographical Society in 2010. He was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2013 for his services to geology and science communication. That same year he received an Athelstan Spilhaus Award from the American Geophysical Union.

“You have to be willing to take risks,” he said. “Geologists tend to know very specific areas of geology, but in television you’ve got to put yourself on the edge of geology and connect it to art, architecture and be a broad sweeping specialist,” he explained.

“Television is linear and narrative. It’s a whole new way of having to think.”

Building Bridges

To date, Stewart has hosted a slew of science shows including, “Volcano Live,” “How To Grow a Planet,” “Earth: The Climate Wars,” and “Earth: The Power of the Planet.”

Based on what he has learned, the art of communicating science has become a new discipline that, in Stewart’s mind, could become an integrated part of science education in the distant future.

“The issue of geosciences literacy is under-researched,” he said. “However, with major issues such as hydraulic fracturing, radioactive waste disposal and carbon capture and storage looming large, it seems it is more and more important to appreciate what ordinary people’s baseline awareness is of our unfamiliar world in the subsurface.

“There is much to be gleaned from psychologists, anthropologists, geographers and sociologists about the way that individuals and communities understand and respond to geosciences problems,” he said. “But it is still too early to establish ’geo-cognition’ as a coherent discipline.’”

To help pave the way, an inspired Stewart returned to the academic world in 2004 at Plymouth University in England and worked for 10 years to establish a one-of-a-kind elective course for master’s-level students called Geoscience Communication.

In a nutshell, he is teaching students that there is more to geology than geology. Being able to effectively communicate their passion is the first step in sharing its relevance with the public and showing people why they should care.

Currently working as both a professor and television host, Stewart has done his part in building a bridge between academia and popular culture. After his brief stint away from the academic world while working with BBC officials, Stewart admitted returning to university life was more difficult than he ever imagined.

“Several universities wouldn’t touch me with a barge pole,” he said, explaining most were interested in scientific research he had done while away. Television practically tainted Stewart.

“Now, I would hope scientists wouldn’t have to give up their jobs to do what I did,” he said. “We scientists choose to study what we do because it’s fascinating, it’s really amazing and it enriches people’s lives.

“We need to develop these career pathways,” he said. “It is part and parcel of what a geologist does.”

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Emphasis: Geoscience Education