Thursday 4 February 2016

Polarity Rocks!

Way back in March 2013 when my theme for the year was science and my “Ology of the Month” was geology I wrote about the work of a gay geophysicist Allan Cox and his role in proving the theory of continental drift. That validation wouldn’t have been possible without the work of another gay geophysicist with whom he shared the Vetlesen Prize (the “Nobel Prize” of the geological world) in 1971. The other recipient was Stanley Keith Runcorn (1922-1995).

Here’s a quote about Keith Runcorn (he was always known his second name) which shows how important he was to geophysical research. It comes from the introduction to “Mantle Dynamics: Treatise of Geophysics”, edited by David Bercovivi, who described Runcorn as “a unique figure in that he was at the forefront of major discoveries in palaeomagnetism that led to the modern theory of plate tectonics…”.

Stanley Keith Runcorn was born in the industrial north west of England in 1922. For a man whose professional career revolved around rocks it’s not surprising to learn that his father was a monumental mason. Despite these humble origins he went on to study at Cambridge University, where he was during most of World War II.

Runcorn’s work in the field of geophysics and geomagnetism would eventually lead to an invitation from NASA to help in their Galileo Orbiter project and their research into interplanetary magnetic fields. He was even accepted an invitation to join the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1981.

Runcorn never hid his homosexuality but didn’t involve himself in gay rights. He travelled almost constantly, researching and lecturing, attending conferences and accepting academic positions around the world. His stamina was immense, as was needed in his favourite leisure activity, rugby. He was an active president of the Newcastle University rugby club when he was a professor there.

It was on one of his many lecture trips that he met his death. In 1995 Runcorn was invited to speak at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. One night he picked up a professional kick-boxer and karate black belt in a bar and took him back to his hotel room. The next morning his battered and strangled body was found in his hotel bathroom by a maid. The kick-boxer was later arrested and found guilty of murder.
Runcorn became interested in geomagnetism in 1946 shortly after becoming a physics lecturer at Manchester University, where he met fellow academic Alan Turing, the “Father of the Computer”. He later moved to Cambridge University and in 1956 he was appointed Professor of Physics at Newcastle University. He remained there until his retirement in 1988.

It was known that rocks retain their magnetic orientation as they cool, thus indicating the direction of the magnetic North Pole at the rock’s formation. Runcorn and his colleagues discovered some rocks had a reversed polarity to layers immediately above and below them indicating that the magnetic North Pole was at the geographic South Pole. Some of these rocks also showed the polarity pointing in different directions, as if the magnetic North Pole itself had moved.

This movement of the North Pole wasn’t a theory which all scientists accepted. At first Runcorn himself didn’t accept that it indicated continental drift, only what is called apparent polar wandering. He changed his mind when he moved from Cambridge to Newcastle in 1956.

The continental drift theory wasn’t universally accepted. It had developed from late Victorian studies into earthquakes. The invention of the seismograph helped to prove that shockwaves moved through the centre of the planet in several ways, and this led to the realisation that Earth wasn’t a solid lump of rock but had a molten interior and solid core. Once the scientific world got their heads around that idea a new one emerged, or re-emerged. Sir Francis Bacon way back in the 17th century noticed that the coastlines of West Africa and South America almost fit together. He didn’t give any explanation or reason for this, but in 1915 Alfred Wegener brought this “coincidence” back to the science world, with evidence from fossils, to create the continental drift theory. As with other theories like black holes, evolution and the sun-centred solar system, other scientists laughed. It was the study of paleomagnetism in rocks, and the works of Keith Runcorn and Allan Cox among others, which helped to prove Wegener was right.

Finally another quote. This one was written in his own lifetime, in celebration of his 60th birthday, and was published in “New Scientist” on 28th April 1983. Peter J. Smith wrote, “Runcorn has probably made more original contributions to more branches of the subject than any other geophysicist; but if history judges his work on that basis alone, it will come up with an incomplete assessment. For what would be missing would be the effect of his enthusiasm on others, in ways not recorded in the formal literature. There is no one better at persuading people to do things they might not otherwise have been inclined to do. There is no one better at perceiving likely growth points in geophysics, at getting the money to pursue them and at encouraging people to work on them. And finally, there’s no one with a more impressive grasp of the whole field of geophysics on Earth – or the Moon for that matter.”

It is Runcorn’s work in interplanetary geophysics and for NASA which we will return to in the future in a “Star Gayzing” article.

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