Hard and soft sciences

I once had the great privilege and pleasure of meeting Tressilian Nicholas, a long-time fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, who shared with me an interesting little story about the former Master of Trinity, physicist J.J.Thomson.

Nicholas was a geologist who joined Trinity in 1913 and was 102 years old when he died in 1989. He was elected the first geology fellow of Trinity and had a long and distinguished career. He served in the army during the first world war, leaving with the rank of major.

He was for 27 years Senior Bursar of Trinity and was primarily responsible for the brilliant investment of college funds which has today resulted in Trinity being the wealthiest college in Britain. He had the bright idea of buying Felixtowe docks before they were transformed into the largest container shipping port in Europe.

In the 1970s I needed someone to propose me for membership of the Geologists’ Association and I was introduced to Nicholas by a mutual friend. He kindly invited us to see over the college and dine in Hall. He welcomed us to the rooms he occupied – rooms that were once those of Sir Isaac Newton – festooned with geological specimens sent to him from all over the world.

Nicholas told me that when he became Bursar, he gained access to the College’s archives. Out of curiosity he looked up his own election to Fellow and found that they all had voted for him except J.J. Thomson, Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics, and discoverer of the electron.

The reason was that Thomson did not consider geology to be a real science, like physics, merely involving going for pleasant walks in the countryside and having picnics beside picturesque quarries and sea cliffs.

I wonder what Thomson would say today to the part that geology has played in oil and gas exploration and to the part played by Nicholas in acquiring land holdings for the college worth some £800 million?

I wonder also what Thomson would make of the part played by geology in the design and construction of the wings of the European Airbus. The wings are made by BAe at Filton in Bristol. They are not, as many assume, made of aluminium but are constructed from a complex sandwich or composite of synthetic materials, including Carbon Fibre. In designing the sandwich, the aero engineers were able to draw upon the expertise of geologists at Bristol University. They had studied in detail the strength of different sedimentary rocks depending on the thickness and composition of the various strata contained within them.

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