An Afternoon with Iain Stewart
Whilst working at last week’s British Science Festival I caught up with prominent geoscience communicator, Professor Iain Stewart. I knew his schedule would be chock-a-block for the short time that he was around, but, as he was a lecturer of mine at Plymouth University, I thought I should seize the opportunity and invite him for an interview. He accepted. Find out how it went below.
Saturday 8th September 2012, Aberdeen – Iain and I met on what was a glorious day in the Granite City; the sun was shining and the festival, with all its weekend punters, was buzzing with energy. Excitement was also building for the professor’s talk that evening; I took the opportunity to ask him a few questions before hand.
Science festivals are the pinnacle of the science communication calendar. They give scientists, journalists and professional science communicators a chance to reach the biggest audiences, generate the most press, collaborate with their peers and excite the public about their disciplines; the British Science Festival being no exception… So how does Iain find them?
“The science festival is great: it’s always good to try and do. I did it [the British Science Festival] before at Edinburgh, and also at Birmingham. I also come up for TechFest…so I’m used to coming up to Aberdeen for science.
“The whole point of having a post that’s geoscience communication is to talk to anybody that’ll listen to geoscience. The absolute core of it is the public and the really big venues for that are the science festivals like…Cheltenham and Edinburgh, so [I attend them] whenever I can.
“Last year I did one up in a little village in Otley: the Otley science festival – I think it’s the smallest science festival in Britain! There are loads and loads of them; in fact, I get more invitations than I can actually do, which is a real shame. They’re fantastic to do; great fun.”
At this particular festival Iain was to present a talk on, among other things, his up-coming BBC series, The Story of the Continents.
“Well, I wanted to call it Iain Stewart, In Continents. The new series is called The Story of the Continents, which sounds rather dull, and that’s what the title is: I went for the safe one!
“The series is taking the idea that we’re so familiar with the continents the way they are today…but as any geologist knows all those continents were together with Pangaea…[and] it’s the breakup of Pangaea that’s giving us the geography: the legacy that we have today.
“The series looks at the break-up and charts the stories of The Americas, Africa, Eurasia and Australasia and Antarctica. So there are four programmes.”
The contrast between being involved both as a scientist and as a presenter, it seems, is a delicate one.
“It’s an interesting balancing act, it’s always slightly difficult to judge what your perspective should be. You’re there as a geologist so you’ve got some specialist knowledge but you’ve also got to bring the viewer along as well. You can’t get away with just standing there and telling them…[so] you have to be on a learning journey yourself.
“There are things that you do know, and that you show the evidence for. Equally, you’ll meet real experts that are, maybe, a particular palaeontologist that has worked for twenty years on a fossil site, or an archaeologist that’s been working for ages on something…They’ve got real insight into something you shouldn’t have, or necessarily be expected to have. At that point you can be the viewer and ask simple, sometimes daft, questions that they might want to ask.
“Ordinary people think that if you’re a geologist, you know everything about geology; everything about rocks: metamorphic, sedimentary, igneous, palaeontology, sedimentology, geochemistry – maybe we should. But, when you become a researcher you end up becoming an expert in nothing but this tiny little thing…Telly rips you back out of that and presents you as this person who’s got a broad knowledge again. It always takes you on your journey, and you hope the viewers come with you.”
So how much of this specialist knowledge is used in the final programme and how does the partnership come together when filming?
“The whole thing is this complicated partnership. My contribution is about 50%, probably less. The key thing is having that role on the ground as we film, so we can change things.
“Some of the proposals come from the BBC, some of them come from me and others are kind of an amalgam. This one is the latter. In the early stage I’ll be involved with the arc of it all: what’s the purpose, what’s the message, how are we setting out? That early stage is the place to get the ideas in, the things that I’m interested in.
“What I tend to do after that is leave the directors alone. Essentially what they’ve got to do is a degree in six weeks. Some of the best ideas come from them…Suddenly they’re coming back and telling me a story that I’d never heard of before.
“Then you get the script…At that stage there’s not really many dramatic things you can do with it because it’s all scheduled…you can’t suddenly say ‘let’s not go to South America’.
“When we go out to film, people are really keen to riff, and [to use] whatever we find there. That’s the advantage of having an expert to be able to do that. You can’t do that with a celebrity presenter, but you can if you know your stuff.”
To get to where he is today, Iain had to make some big sacrifices. His journey was not a straightforward one, but one which he is happy with.
“I did a horizon in the late nineties…I’d done some telly really early on and I always really liked the performance side of the academic thing…We should be thinking of students as more of an audience, instead of a set of bums-on-seats that have paid their money and have an exam at the end of it.
“At that particular horizon programme I was asking them ‘why is there no geology on telly?’…They were saying ‘lots of people are trying to do it, but it’s not really come off’. So I was intrigued to find out why it is that’s it’s not come off?
“After that I just bubbled around for a few years; I was working at Brunel University at the time. Then, I don’t know, maybe it was a mid-life crisis: my wife and I just gave our jobs up; we moved back up to Scotland and I took a year and went round all the independent TV companies that I knew…I ended up putting in four proposals to Channel 4…I don’t know why I didn’t talk to the BBC initially, it was odd. Eventually I got talking to the BBC and we struck an idea about the Mediterranean: very quickly that became a major project. At one point I had the choice of going to Channel 4 or the BBC. I always felt that the BBC was the perfect place to learn the trade…They’ve been doing it for a long time. That’s a linear version of something that was a rather sprawling, rambling tale.
“In 2004, that’s when I decided I needed to get back into academia. The point was never to leave academia, but at that point I felt I had to leave to get some time and space.”
Since becoming a pioneer of geology on television, Iain has become a household name. Popular geology now has a place among the more traditionally exciting astrophysics or nature programming. So what has changed?
“I think the thing that’s crystallised in people’s minds is that geology isn’t just rocks…When you open it out and show that it’s to do with this enormous four-and-a-half billion year history of the planet; it’s do with these continental movements, earthquakes and volcanos; the incredible epic episodes in the planet’s past. Suddenly, all of that is magical television.
“What’s happened in the last ten years, and I’ve never thought about it really but, there’s a genre now. Hugely influential was Planet Earth…That transformed the standard of cinematography; people wanted to see epic landscapes and amazing scenery: the Earth doing great things. Suddenly the Earth was right for doing things.
“I describe it as how the planet works and what it means for us – that’s huge. If you can’t make TV programmes about that you shouldn’t be in television.”
The advantages of being a presenter of popular science programmes are obvious to many but, as many people know, nothing worth doing is easy.
“The best thing is the first meeting we have for a new series and they say, ‘Iain, where do you want to go?’…We have this great discussion and you leave just going ‘Oh my god!’ We end up going to amazing places but it’s really funny because a lot of the places I suggest we never go to in the end.
“The worst bit is the stage I’m in now: when you’re about two-thirds of the way through…You just get tired because it’s constant filming…It’s tricky not to get depressed, or a bit blasé about it. Next week I’m going to the Victoria Falls. That’s like one of the top 5 places – somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since I was a kid – and I’m going to end up getting there and probably going ‘oh, yeah, yeah, Victoria Falls’, just because it’s been months and months of places like that. I keep on trying to guard against that. It shouldn’t be that tough. It’s because you end up filming for about six months; you’re away from family; when you go back you’ve got a day job…It’s quite tiring. There is a point when you’re travelling and you just want your own bed, your own house and to walk into the office and have a cup of coffee. But how could you not want to go somewhere like Victoria Falls?”
As a professor of geoscience communication at Plymouth University, Iain has to balance the life of an academic with that of a television personality. He seems to relish each of the roles, but the difference between the two is very apparent.
“Television is a place where they tell you ‘you’re brilliant, you’re brilliant, you’re brilliant’; university is a place they tell you, ‘you’re shit, you’re shit, you’re shit’.”
“When I’m sick of filming, I come back and it’s great teaching and seeing students; a new set of students come in, it’s all great. Then when I get sick of you guys and marking, and you get sick of me, I’m off again and I’m a minor celebrity. What’s good about that is that it keeps you grounded.
“The two worlds actually end up balancing out, so you end up somewhere, hopefully, in the middle.”
So what effect does all this jet-setting have on the traditional aspects of an academic’s life, like research?
“The telly stuff eats up the research time; my teaching hasn’t changed but research is the free time, if you like, that the filming and telly stuff bites into – that’s one of the casualties.
“For me it’s not a problem because research I think is a pretty selfish business; you do it because you love doing it. Telly and filming fills that void for me: I’m happy doing that.”
Having said that, there still seems to be a big part of the professor that would like to get back in the saddle and hit the books.
“My interests have always been really recent Earth movements…Particularly the last ten thousand, hundred thousand years; overlapping with humans. I’m also getting interested in geoscience communication as a research thing; I’ve written a paper recently.
“Research is really important for a whole set of things. It’s good to go to research conferences…to listen other people’s research…It gives you loads of good ideas for television. The other side of it, which most academics have, is being able to come back and talk to students.
“I don’t want to get rid of the research; research is really useful for us, and it’s something I enjoy doing. There might come a time when I do less television to do more research, but I’ve not got to that.”
Does Iain believe that his science can break boundaries, propagate knowledge and change the world?
“Whenever you write something about earthquakes you’re always saying that it’s a big advance for seismic hazard and that it’ll save lives. I used to actually believe that, but I don’t believe it any more. In terms of the applied world I don’t really have any expectations that what I research is going to advance the knowledge of science and change people’s lives. I think a much more powerful way to do that is, funnily enough, through television.”
Iain had recently met some graduate geologists working in various geoscience positions. He closed by summing up his thoughts of the encounter.
“I was asking the students ‘what is it that we’ve taught you, that you use now?’ They couldn’t think what it was. It made me think that, actually, very little of what we teach you, specific things that we and you think that [are valuable] for jobs, will actually get you jobs. The things that get you jobs are the generic skills: critical thinking, being interested in this stuff; just becoming a geologist in general; acting like a geologist. One of the things I’ve realised is that basic communication…is probably more important in getting a job than some of the other applied modules.
“Whatever you do, you will always have to speak to people who don’t know about your subject. Even if you go on to do a PhD you’ll still be doing that, or even if you ditch geology and work in retail, you’ll still have to do that – I think it’s a generic graduate skill – that we don’t teach.”
I would like to thank Iain for his time and cooperation during the interview process, for his enthusiasm for my endeavours as a blogger, but mostly for the pint – which at some point when he’s not trawling the outback or scaling Mt Fuji – I will have to repay him for.