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Discussion > Inspiring Teachers and Mentors

Pharos and Paul Dennis in the Buckle Up thread mentioned some people who inspired them and set the standard when they were young. I was particularly taken by Paul's comment:


You say that most people will not remember names but I do. Doug Shearman and Graham Evans taught me sedimentology and I later became a colleague of Kendall. I remember Doug's lectures were models of clarity with elegant diagrams detailing the growth of evaporite minerals in sabkha environments.

Thanks for bringing back memories of those days at the RSM in the 70's.
We spend a lot of time and effort on battering schoolteachers and academics, often with good reason. But my guess is that most of us encountered at least one teacher or mentor who put some concrete under our wobbly foundations, or forced/cajoled us to think critically, or otherwise helped us on our way to becoming adult sentient beings.

One hallmark of that (IMO) is scepticism about CAGW. Not denial, scepticism. It has meant going against the flow, without being a complete nutter, in an often hostile environment.

So, as a mark of respect to pedagogues and mentors, who are usually unrewarded for exceptional work, I invite BH readers to name those people and tell us why they were important. I'll add my own story in due course.

Oct 15, 2013 at 9:22 AM | Registered Commenterjohanna

Johanna, thank you for starting this discussion. For me school and university were very rewarding and happy days. I remember with very great affection teachers and mentors who went some way to shaping who I am and my approach to science. At school, as a 14 year old Mr McLaughlin introduced me to geology. His enthusiasm was infectious and I knew instantly that geology was to become my passion. At university I had many good teachers but those that had a real impact were the previously mentioned Doug Shearman (sedimentology), Ernie Rutter (structural geology, rock mechanics and physical properties of minerals), Neville Price (structural geology and rock mechanics), Jack Nolan (igneous petrology) and Gloria Borley (geochemistry). All taught me to focus, think critically and with clarity of purpose. Neville Price would come into lectures and say 'I don't want you to take any notes this lecture but to work through this problem with me instead'. He'd then go to the board and draw a picture of some sediments and ask what are the forces involved in folding processes, how can we estimate the strain rate response of the sediments to these applied forces and are there any mechanisms by which friction could be reduced. We were forced to question, be sceptical in general and work from first principles. That lesson has never failed me in life.
It would be good to hear from others who have been equally as fortunate as I have to be inspired by teachers, and especially your story Johanna.

Oct 15, 2013 at 10:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Dennis

Paul, without going into detail, I had a Mr McLaughlin also who took our Hobbies class in my choice of geology. Perhaps a bunch of Mr McLaughlin clones were sent out at the time? :)

Oct 15, 2013 at 11:13 AM | Registered Commenterjohanna

Commander Simpson taught us physics. He had led the British North Greenland expedition back in 1952.

Mr Gurney, otherwise undistinguished, introduced the logical fallacies, a very useful lesson albeit without the latin labels.

During my short stay at Imperial we had electrical engineering from a prof who knew everything about the subject, was a distinguished inventor and even a TV personality. Folks of my vintage will remember him. He later became kind of obsessed with the supposed magical qualites of gyroscopes and blew his reputation away. Just goes to show expertise in one field has no bearing on others.

Oct 15, 2013 at 11:30 AM | Registered Commenterrhoda

rhoda, was that Eric Laithwaite?

I remember two teachers, one at school (Mr. Cardno, A level chemistry) and one at university (Dr. Curan, pure maths). Both said the same thing on the first day: "nobody has ever failed this course" (the implication / threat being that none of you buggers is going to be the first!). Truly outstanding!

Oct 15, 2013 at 7:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Longstaff

Roger, my thoughts too. I think Rhoda is talking about Eric Laithwaite. He had retired by the time I went to Imperial but I do remember his television appearances and notably one demonstrating a linear drive train with magnetic levitation.

Oct 15, 2013 at 8:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Dennis

I am delighted to have prompted Paul Dennis's recollections, and, indirectly, this thread. As I implied, I was working in 1963, aged 18 not long out of school, as a technician analysing samples collected from the Persian Gulf. Specifically it comprised grain size sieve fraction and deflocculated clay pipette analysis using a centrifuge, calculating fraction weights using a wind-the-handle mechanical calculating machine, and also pulverising a fraction of the sample in a motorised agate mortar for XRD mineralogy. I proudly wore a white coat, and had a princely salary of around £ 400 pa. I opened my bank account in S Ken to receive it, and its remained my account and branch ever since. Graham Evans was my direct boss and I owe it to his influence that I became a pioneer field technician as well, helping survey and take samples in situ. I had always enjoyed physical geography in school, geology not being an available option, but soon realised that geology was for me.

Doug Shearman was the one that really encouraged me to go for a BSc in Geology. He had been one of those, I think, whose own training was interrupted by the war. He had gone back and done an external London degree at, I think, Chelsea College of Science and Technology, then gone on to become a full lecturer at IC without messing about on a PhD. He was a brilliant carbonate-evaporite sedimentologist and a real character, stories of some his adventures, getting arrested and so on, were legendary. Imperial College now honours him in perpetuity with the 'Douglas Shearman Fieldwork Fund'.

Oct 15, 2013 at 9:02 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

Pharos, I agree completely with you about Doug Shearman. His breadth and depth of knowledge was phenomenal. He was an inspirational teacher but more than that a great character with a deep humanity. He lived in Kent, but rather than commute to South Kensington rigged up a hammock in his office to sleep over. One field trip with the De la Beche society to North Devon was particularly memorable.

Oct 15, 2013 at 9:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterPaul Dennis

Christopher Zeeman the Catastrophe Theory chap was the head honcho for my maths course but to be honest I don't remember that much about him. I have wondered what he'd make of this CAGW stuff: I see he's now a Fellow of the Royal Society. Perhaps he could have a chat with Mr Nurse.

My main mentor was a chap called Ken Lowe in the 6th form. There were ten of us doing Further Maths and his lessons were very interactive for such a dry subject; never a dull moment. We weren't allowed to write anything as he kept us all on our toes probing, questioning, making sure we understood the material. Then at the start of the next lesson we'd write like b*ggery to document and reinforce what we'd done previously. It worked a treat and ISTR 8 of us got As. Top bloke.

I was a bit of a long-haired lout at school (Zep and Floyd) and he was the smart teacher. I spotted him in Oxfam last year and now I was the (relatively) smart bloke with a receding hairline and he was the scruffy oik with long hair and a ponytail (oh dear).

It seems he has found some local fame in his retirement job:
Expensive Sherlock

Oct 15, 2013 at 11:25 PM | Registered CommenterSimonW

There's a typical B/W picture of Doug Shearman in action embedded in this pdf. Note the omnipresent fag, the studious frown and the glasses, which fluctuated between the active facial position and the passive, dangling on a cord round his neck.

Oct 15, 2013 at 11:52 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

Pharos & Paul Dennis. Wasn't Doug Shearman the legend who rafted/swam around the Tigris and Euphrates marshes doing fieldwork?

I was hopeless at school, and hated it. I left at 16 with 3 O-levels. When I was 29, UEA (University of Easy Access) admitted me to study Environmental Sciences. Note, it is sciences (plural), and I ended up with what was essentially a geology degree. The Earth Science group were generally excellent, but there are three standouts. My sedimentology lecturers were Chris Baldwin and Nick McCave. Chris is author of the Shallow Siliciclastic Seas Chapter in Reading (ed)
sedimentary Environments. That is the standard graduate level textbook for sedimentology. Nick is a specialist in deep marine environments, and went on to be Woodwardian Professor at Cambridge. Both were excellent and dedicated lecturers, and inspired me to go on to a career in sedimentology.

Pick of the bunch was Fred Vine, geophysicist. Fred was joint author of a paper (Vine and Matthews) which interpreted the magnetic stripes across the E-90 ridge in the Indian Ocean as the product of sea-floor spreading. That was one of the 3 key pieces of evidence needed to demonstrate plate tectonics. Fred was modest, charming, and his lectures were models of clarity and organisation. He (and Neil Chroston) made geophysics accessible to this not particularly mathematical student.

I'll note that Geoff Boulton was also a very good lecturer, and his Quaternary Geology unit was fascinating, as well as being very well prepared. I didn't care for him personally though.

All in all, those 3 years at UEA were the best of my life, fascinating, stimulating and rewarding. I had to work my arse off though, to catch up with all the kiddiewinks who'd just come from school with A levels, when I'd been driving and fixing trucks for 13 years.

Oct 16, 2013 at 7:46 AM | Registered CommenterHector Pascal

I can't confirm that but it has the ring of plausibility. Anecdotes of his fieldwork exploits were a bit reminiscent of a latter-day T E Lawrence. Lets call him the eighth pillar of wisdom.

Oct 16, 2013 at 11:22 AM | Registered CommenterPharos

I don't have a particular teacher who inspired me, like Hector I left school at 16 and travelled through my education at a snail's pace, however from an early age I was entranced by astronomy and avidly read Patrick Moore where I learned that Venus had become warm because it had too much CO2 in the atmosphere in the late 50s. That's turned up to bite us again, but nobody seemed to relate the atmospheric pressure of Venus as a possible cause, just the CO2.

I am left with a number of wise words that have stuck with me all my life. This one is again pertinent to our modern problems. Our Geography teacher, Brother Alban, was also our form master and as such had to teach us Religious education (although I was always left with the impression he didn't much believe anything himself). One day we were dealing with Matthew 24:7 where Jesus makes the prediction that, "... nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places." One boy, who I believe was called McBrinn put up his hand and said something to the effect that there were always wars, pestilence and famine hinting strongly that this wasn't a very good prediction. I paraphrase the response from the good Brother because the exact words have left me with the passage of time, but it went something like this:

"Well spotted McBrinn, there's a lesson for all of us there. If you are going to predict the future predict the commonplace and say it will be much worse than now. That way nobody can prove you wrong."


Oct 16, 2013 at 12:27 PM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

'Now for global warming. Of course we are going through a period of warming, but so far as human culpability is concerned I am a total sceptic and I fear we are dealing with political manoeuvring. There was, for example, much greater marked warming at the end of the Maunder Minimum; what about the Mediaeval Maximum, when Britain was hotter than it is now? No doubt, the present period of warming will be followed by a period of cooling, as has happened in the past time and time again. After all, the Sun is to a mild extent a variable star and we cannot control it –'
(The Late) Sir Patrick Moore

Oct 16, 2013 at 1:20 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

Inspiring Teachers and Mentors ?
All those on BBC radio & TV that showed us the habits of logic, reasoning, questioning and not taking things at face value. Who have all now been banned by the BBC, many from Johnny Ball to David Bellamy etc. with the last one out being Prof Philip Stott.
- ( Magicians like James Randi, Penn & Teller inspire, but are hounded out from commenting on climate these days. Penn and Teller's TV series Bullshot was a true service)
..even all those consumer shows that expose conning are valuable showing people things can be "too good/bad to be true"

- In print those others that showed us the value of scientific skepticism and critical thinking, Edward de Bono, Carl Sagan, Robert Park, Richard Dawkins, Richard Feynmann

- Live all those people that organise skeptic in the pub meetings until most of them became gorilla blind about climate science and gave it a free pass from criticism.
- and I suppose people the same thing happened to like Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Dr Karl etc. (I regard the current cool crowd of O'Briain, Cox, Robin Ince as truly harming science)

one day those people will say something like the "do you remember when we all went mad when Princess Diana died ?"

Oct 16, 2013 at 4:04 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

Stewgreen - picking up on your "Do you remember when we all went mad when Princess Diana died?" comment.

My in-laws were away travelling when Princess Diana was killed in the car accident, and they missed the funeral. They commented that all their friends seemed to have changed, and become very emotional about Diana's death, in a sort of weirdly obsessive and slightly neurotic way. It was as if the public social consciousness had warped while they were away, and they were outsiders, seeing the change, and seeing it was (at some deep level) – crazy. I have to admit being affected too!

I feel the same way about CAGW. It’s become an unconsciously accepted emotional truth for many UK left-liberals and greens, and they get very upset and preachy if you question this ‘truth’. The flip to CAGW belief didn’t happen as quickly as the Diana effect. It was more slow-burn, but it was, and is, an emotional flip to a heartfelt belief.

The Diana effect was odd and noticeable, and people commented on it at the time. I hope you’re right that when people look back at themselves, when CAGW has evaporated, they’ll puzzle about how they were taken in and swept along. Might take some time.

I know that this is off-message re Johanna’s discussion of important teachers and mentors, but your comment fairly jumped off the page.

Oct 21, 2013 at 11:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterMark Piney

I first became interested in the AGW issue in December 2007 when someone responding to David Whitehouse’s seminal article Has global warming stopped? in the New Statesman, drew the not uncommon parallel between the Y2K “scare” and the AGW scare. Having noted the falseness of this parallel, I got sucked into the more general debate and, after a couple of weeks (on 10th January 2008), rather pompously proposed three “principles”:

(1) Although there may be disagreement about whether the science of AGW is settled, it is prudent anyway to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and sensible to take other measures arising from the IPCC report such as curtailing the further destruction of rainforests.

(2) But action that halts or reduces economic growth is impracticable as it would (a) be unacceptable to most voters (and consequently to political leaders) in the developed “western” economies, (b) be ignored by most governments of the developing “eastern” economies and (c) be damaging to the world’s poorest people.

(3) Therefore, we must develop solutions that reconcile (1) and (2).

The response (on 11th January) from someone calling himself “Mr Fnortner” has influenced me greatly ever since – I’ve no idea who he really is, but I’m hugely grateful to him. I post it in full below – apologies for the length of this, but I think it’s worth it. The first paragraph was not a reply to me, but, as it refers to the influence of his teachers, it is particularly relevant to this thread.
Being an engineer, I hold to rationality above all. I know full well that love for a design will not keep a bridge from collapsing, nor will disdain for a rival keep his own design from working. So the debate among the scientists on this topic has been both astonishing and distressing to me in their cavalier disregard for a solid factual foundation. The global warming contingent would have us erect a building on sand. In the dim mists of the previous century, when I went to engineering school, I was taught by some fine scientists whose voices still echo in my mind, and whose voices easily overmatch those I hear on this forum. I am angry in their behalf.

Fossil fuels may be growing short in supply; conserving them may be in our best interest. But keeping our air clean enough to breathe may be more important. So I agree with your principle (1) if reduced usage actually serves to keep the air clean. If. And, of course, there are other ways to keep the air clean.

I believe the destruction of the rain forests is criminal. But the nations that possess the rain forests are sovereign, and choices about rain forest management belong to the people of those nations. I consider any attempt to influence the behavior of governments toward the people they serve that comes from outside a nation to be imperialistic, and verging on a human rights violation on an international scale, i.e., one government forcing another government to force its citizens to do a thing against their will is an abomination.

I can't support anything other than education or something similar within the nations where this destruction is so rampant. Maybe the richest countries of the world would like to purchase the rain forests and put them in perpetual trusts instead of spending their trillions on armaments and wars.

Principle (2) is very much the human way. We don't usually make allowances for those who aren't very much in the thick of things. If you're not among the winners, we don't have much use for you: "I've got mine, now get lost." (I cleaned up the language considerably.) So I don't expect the technologically advanced economies to scale themselves down and suffer a bit of sacrifice while supporting the emerging economies. That's carrying altruism just a bit too far.

I don't have a ready answer for (3), but all the while I was writing this response I was wondering who the "we" was you used in your question. Certainly it wasn't the royal "we" (we are not amused) or the medical "we" (how are we feeling today?), so you must mean someone who could possibly act and carry out the solution. Who is that, exactly?

My answer to his final question is that I was chastened that he’d caught me using sloppy phrasing. As I then admitted:
I’ve no idea who “we” is: I shouldn’t have used it. There is no “we” with the authority to impose any perceived “solution” on the world.
I’ve learned my lesson. It’s a pity that others who presume to preach what “we” should be doing haven’t done likewise.

Oct 21, 2013 at 2:21 PM | Registered CommenterRobin Guenier


You've touched on another interesting topic, well worthy of its own thread, on what individual catalyst sucked people into the black hole of climate science in the first place.

You, and anyone wishing to analyse motivation into the subject, may be interested in the treasure trove of material in Judith Curry's Climate Etc blog under the Denizens thread. Both warmists and sceptics are there and all shades between, but sceptics seem dominant. They include Aynley Kellow, Nic Lewis, Hilary Ostrov, tallbloke, and many more.

Although not posting under the blog name Pharos, my contribution on the awareness theme includes the following

'AGW was off my radar until I started getting suspicious, around 2005, of what appeared to me to be propaganda on the BBC and in the media. While basically sceptical, aware that climate variability is the geological norm, it puzzled me that warming and CO2 enrichment should be viewed negatively, which to me turned geological logic and historical evidence upside down. After all, common sense dictates that warmth generally means lush growth, good crop yields, general fertility and even thick tree rings, but cold equals hardship, and maybe even death if you’re coldblooded or a plant hit by frost. I started surfing for information, and found some online US course notes. I went through them carefully, considering the logic put forth, and found it less than convincing.

My scepticism deepened in the face of what had now become an obvious barrage of one-sided media promotion. More significantly, there seemed to be no clear-cut consistency in the relationship between temperature and CO2 in differing geological epochs, and in the Quaternary ice cores CO2 trailed warming.'

In fact, in reminding myself that it was over the top promotion on the BBC that first raised my warning flag, perhaps it occurs to others as well, so perversely, perhaps we should after all celebrate BBC bias for the rise in scepticism.

Oct 21, 2013 at 8:43 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

Hi johanna

went to work at 16 & cant say any teacher really inspired me, I was to young & thought I knew it all probably (same for most I know in Scotland back in the 70s & later).

but I was given the basics by them & my parents, inquiring minds find ways to educate themselves (still lousy at spelling as you may tell).

the web has truly opened up learning for many like me (although the public library is my first port of call to be honest, Gov/council cuts to these shows how far we have slipped, but thats another story)
inquire & be skeptical is my self taught motto, but you knew that already :-)

Oct 23, 2013 at 12:41 AM | Unregistered Commenterdougieh

dougieh - maybe someone you encountered in your reading or on the internet pushed a few buttons?

For instance, Steve Milloy's JunkScience site got me interested in the climate issue long before it became prominent. His and John Daly's were about the only sceptic sites back then.

Oct 23, 2013 at 8:54 AM | Registered Commenterjohanna

I said that I'd mention some of my own mentors and inspiring teachers. There are lots (perhaps I'm just impressionable), but here are a few. I reserve the right to come back with further info!

My Dad, who is much smarter than me, and who always loved learning, science and looking to the future.

Mr (Eric) Dawson, my teacher in primary school grades 4 and 6. He compiled and roneoed booklets of poetry and prose for each student. Every day, we had a half-hour or so of discussing, learning and even enacting it. I still remember a lot of that stuff, many decades later. "T'was a dingo pup to his dam that said ...". Also, he let me read books when I had finished the class exercise.

Bob Connery, my high school science teacher for 2 years. We became friends, and are still in touch, although I must report that he is dying of cancer (as he bluntly told me over the phone recently). He was cool, had a beard and long hair, played in a blues band and so on. Later, he became a full-time potter and an expert on some obscure branch of Japanese pottery, to the extent that he was flown to and feted in Japan for lecture tours. More importantly, even though he has always been a greenie of sorts, he genuinely loves science and detests cant.

That's enough for now. Reminds me that I need to ring Bob, who lives a long way away.

Oct 25, 2013 at 5:08 AM | Registered Commenterjohanna