Despite a poor upbringing and a hard life working at sea and then at the shipyards, my Dad was a big science and natural history fan, filled with an excited wonder, awe and curiosity at the natural world, something he passed onto me.
His interests were reflected in the books he bought. If a book wasn’t on natural history, it was on his other great love, history. Books were an important part of our family life when I was growing up, and since we didn’t have much money they were genuinely hard-earned treasures and to be treated with respect. Although with a great love for the whole natural world, his main interest was geology and in particular volcanoes, a curiosity partly fed by personal experience. He had witnessed volcanoes in action and had felt the unstoppable brute power of a natural machine constantly building itself. He often described how powerless yet excited he felt witnessing such events, and how he could understand people faced with a volcanic event being so mesmerised and terrified into inaction that they lost their lives.
During the recent volcanic events in Iceland I’ve been reminded of my Dad, and that if he was still alive, he would have been glued to the 24 hour news channels following the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano eruption, and talking about little else.
Similarly, I’ve been following this like a kid with a new chemistry set. Lava, big explosions, spectacular images – what’s not to find exciting? Yet, there’s a danger that some of the coverage may actually reduce the magic. When Robert Peston talks about airline profits, share prices and government bailouts, the thrilling becomes the mundane.
The events like those in Iceland don’t happen often in a human lifetime and don’t get such media attention, and we need to capitalise on it. Our education system has become so petrified and prescriptive that events such as this don’t get the coverage they deserve in schools. Last year’s dual anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the publication of his On the Origin of Species seemed to have gone unnoticed in schools. Evolution didn’t get the history and science curriculum slots it deserved.
Whilst many moan about the ash travel chaos, it’s big news but the unique educational opportunity offered by this event seems to have been missed. This could be something truly resonant – no stuffy book learning here – this is a marvel of nature we are witnessing ourselves on television and the internet. To add to the uniqueness of this event, there’s evidence that this eruption holds something humanity hasn’t seen before, with unusually high silica concentrations in the ash spewed into the atmosphere that is a defining moment for geology. This is in part responsible for the cautious flight bans – no-one really knows what this concentration of fine silica particulates can do as modern aircraft haven’t faced them before.
An innovative head of education would be clearing the science curriculum to cover these events, or even better, let science teachers take the initiative. In such a case by the end of this term we could have every school child knowing about tectonics, magma chambers and what causes the big smelly explosions, and how our planet was formed.
Of course, this doesn’t match Hekla’s eruption in 2000, but the media attention means there’s an exciting opportunity for our children to learn to appreciate and respect this magnificent machine we’re travelling on through space.