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8 Questions for an Earth Scientist - Prof. James Jackson, C.B.E.

Earth Sciences is a fascinating field of study. We spoke to Cambridge University’s Prof. James Jackson about the Nepal earthquake, the reason behind his fascination for Asia, and what life is like at one of the world’s best universities.
BY Skendha Singh |   22-06-2015
Prof. James Jackson
The Nepal Earthquake in April 2015 was a huge disaster but not an entirely unexpected one. Just a week prior to the event, a team of scientists had visited Kathmandu to help it prepare for a repeat of the 1934 temblor. One of the group of scientists was Prof. James Jackson, the Head of Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge.

Prof. Jackson is a leading seismologist who recently won the Wollaston Medal, the highest award given by the UK’s Geological Society, for his research in the field of active tectonics. Earlier in June, he was also declared a CBE for his services to the environmental sciences. His recent achievements highlight an exceptional career which began with a first class Geology degree from Cambridge.

BrainGain magazine spoke to Dr. Jackson about improving resilience in Asian cities, his work with the Earthquake without Frontiers project, and studying Earth Sciences at Cambridge. Edited excerpts are below.

Firstly, congratulations on the CBE. How do you feel about it?

Oh yes, great! Pleasant surprise. I’m not quite sure why it happens! But, it’s very nice, yes! Thank you.

The recent earthquake is Nepal has been described as a “disaster waiting to happen”, a “nightmare about to come true”, etc.
Is preparedness a dull subject? How do we enliven it?

I don’t think it’s a dull subject at all. I think it’s extremely important.

Well, I think you have to understand what’s going on. Many of the cities in Asia have grown very quickly, especially after the Second World War, and life can be quite difficult in these cities. They’re very congested - terrible traffic, there’s air pollution, water quality is an issue, food quality, even poverty.

And if you then say to people, “Oh! Also, you have to worry about earthquakes!” The earthquake’s actually a little bit remote because you have to worry everyday about these other difficulties, and you prioritize them in your life. You and I would do the same thing. That is the problem – how do you concentrate people’s priorities on earthquake when they have so many other things to worry about every day also?But, just because you prioritize other things, it doesn’t mean that the threat of earthquakes goes away.

This earthquake was not a surprise. We’ve seen earthquakes like this before in Nepal. And where they’ve happened before, they will happen again. What we cannot say is when! So we cannot forecast the times of earthquakes. But we do know for certain they will happen again where they happened in the past.
And that’s why being prepared is the most important thing of all.

India’s populous capital, New Delhi, is in the High Damage Risk Zone. What are your guidelines for improving resilience, if a disaster happens, when it happens?

You have exactly the same problem in India that they have in lots of other cities in Asia. You do want to raise the awareness, certainly. And you do need people to take responsibility for what they can do. But, there are very good people in Nepal and India that are trying to do the right thing.

For example, in Patna, in Bihar, people are working very hard on trying to educate the public; on trying to strengthen schools to educate the children so that they can go home and tell their parents. And there are good people who’re trying to do the right thing. It’s just very difficult!

What is the biggest myth about earthquakes?

Well, the most important myth to destroy is the myth that you can predict them because you cannot. And the problem with that myth is [that] people think you can predict the time of the earthquake, so no one will take responsibility for them.

The lesson from places like Japan, California, New Zealand and Chile is that if you prepare for these earthquakes then there’s no need for people to die in these large numbers. These places are more resilient than many cities in Asia, not because of earthquake prediction but because they prepare properly.

How do you compare your academic career, for instance you recently won the 2015 Wollaston Medal, and the work you do with organisations such as Earthquakes without Frontiers?

They are parts of the same thing. My academic research career is research into earthquakes – how they happen, why they happen and what they tell us about the earth. But the Earthquakes without Frontiers project is designed to use the scientific understanding to reduce the numbers of deaths [from] earthquakes in Asia.

And you need both. You need scientific understanding to help you evaluate the hazard properly and take the right decisions to help prepare for them. So they’re very closely linked, right? I’m just one of a group of scientists who want to help translate the scientific understanding into benefits for people in these cities.

What sparked your own interest in the earth sciences in general and studying seismology in particular?

I’d a deep interest in [using] the arguments in Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics to understand the earth around us and what was going on. And it was all very interesting.
I’ve always been very interested in Asia because I was born in India, I lived there as a child. So I always liked this part of the world and wanted to interact with it.

So it was the natural thing to do.

What advice would you like to share with students who are interested in studying Earth Sciences?

The thing about the Earth Sciences is it’s really using the basic arguments in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics to understand the earth.

The earth is doing experiments all the time and our job is to interpret those experiments. We’re much more in the position of detectives trying to understand what is happening around us. Something like the Nepal earthquake is an opportunity to understand what the earth is doing. You learn from the whole experience and turn it into something useful.

You have had a long and distinguished career at Cambridge, first as a student and now as a Professor. What do you enjoy most about the University?

I really enjoy the fact that at Cambridge I’m surrounded by very clever students.

We have people come into Earth Sciences in Cambridge whose background is in Physics or Chemistry or Biology, and they get interested in the earth, and they are very keen to use anything - any information, or techniques which are available to follow their interest.

It’s also a place which is driven by young people who are very energetic; who cross over the boundaries of their disciplines, who work together, and try and do things which are new, imaginative and interesting! What I like about it is also that the more senior people are there to encourage the young people.
It’s really the young people who make the place work!



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