Iain Stewart

2013 Athelstan Spilhaus Award Winner

Iain Stewart received the Athelstan Spilhaus Award at the 2013 AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 11 December 2013 in San Francisco, Calif. The award honors “individuals who have devoted portions of their lives to expressing the excitement, significance, and beauty of the Earth and space sciences to the general public.”


It is a great pleasure and an honor to give the citation for the 2013 Athelstan Spilhaus awardee, Iain Stewart, professor of geoscience communication at the University of Plymouth, recognizing his truly exceptional work over the last decade in communicating geoscience to the general public. Iain has been making documentaries for the BBC, National Geographic, and Discovery for nearly a decade. These programs have huge international audiences and wide-reaching impact.

On 15 February 2013, a meteor exploded above Russia, causing widespread damage. On the same day, an asteroid skimmed past the Earth, within the orbit of geostationary satellites. Barely two weeks later, Iain presented an in-depth, thoughtful, and entertaining one-hour documentary on BBC2, The Truth About Meteors—scripted, filmed, and edited in just a week. After the 2011 Japan earthquake, he again presented an hour-long special documentary, explaining the science to an audience eager to understand and learn. In both cases, he spotted time-limited opportunities to “inform, educate, and entertain” and seized them with enthusiasm and aplomb.

But most of Iain’s work in science communication has not been in this responsive mode. He has created several landmark BBC Earth science documentary series, including Earth: The Power of the Planet (2007), How Earth Made Us (2010), How to Grow a Planet (2012), and The Rise of the Continents (2013). These series have introduced millions worldwide to the importance and excitement of modern geosciences.

Iain has also developed and explored a range of more innovative broadcasting formats, including Volcano Live (2012), a magazine-style show, broadcast live from Hawaii, which ran in prime time on the BBC for three consecutive nights. I’m not sure how he did it, but persuading the BBC to broadcast a live geology show for three consecutive nights is extraordinary.

In addition to his television work, Iain regularly gives public lectures and is very active in social media, with more than 10,000 followers on Twitter. He is also the author of two popular geoscience books and is heavily involved in promoting Earth science education at all levels. He is the U.K. Geographical Association’s Primary Geography Champion and has used his celebrity to promote the Geoparks initiative and to lobby the U.K. and Scottish parliaments to maintain or grow the presence of Earth science in the school curriculum.

Of course, it is difficult to quantify the cumulative impact of Iain’s work, but a reversal in the decline of U.K. students studying geology at school coincides with Iain’s documentaries. Likewise, university applications for Earth science degrees in the United Kingdom are buoyant, despite the recent introduction of £9000 tuition fees. Anecdotally, many applicants that we interview for places on the geophysics degree at Leeds mention that they got hooked on Earth sciences because of Iain’s TV documentaries.

Iain Stewart’s achievements in geoscience communication are truly outstanding, and I congratulate him on this well­deserved honor.

—TIM WRIGHT, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK


It is really wonderful to receive this award and the recognition of AGU for my work. I’ve been a member of the Union since my Ph.D. days, 25 years or so ago, when I was working on earthquake faulting in Greece and Turkey. Its meetings were always the place that showcased geoscience at its most novel and exciting. It was the breadth of what was on offer that was so exhilarating. My doctoral studies had already opened up fairly wide vistas for me since my interest in Holocene earthquake activity also required an understanding of the Mediterranean’s rich cultural history and the vagaries of millennial-scale climate fluctuations. Later, my research would distract me into farther-flung realms, such as volcanic faulting on Mount Etna, paleotsunamis along Aegean shores, even postglacial earthquakes in northern Scotland! Kindly colleagues would occasionally advise me to focus my efforts on a single substantive area of research, cautioning that my flighty research forays weren’t conducive to climbing the academic ladder. I’m sure they were correct. Or would have been proved so if I hadn’t been rescued by television.

Television offers geoscientists a fantastic medium in which to show off their wares. The strong sense of narrative in documentary film making perfectly matches the sense of geology as a historical science—seamlessly linking youthful human history and archaeology with the venerable cosmology of the big bang. A big part of that success is the spectacular visual wonder that the planet can bring to the screen, not just in terms of awesome geological phenomena in action today but also in the computer­generated imagery (CGI) animations of ancient calamitous events. But the main reason that geology does so well is its surprise element. Most people have no idea what we are and what we do. Something vague about stones perhaps—which seems pretty dull. So when they are confronted with the remarkable stories that the rocks bring forth—and the imaginative ways that we go about finding them—they are genuinely amazed. In that sense, it’s an easy science to sell “on the box.”

My gradual adsorption onto the world of television was only made possible by a series of personal catalysts. On the academic side, Paul Hancock (Bristol) and Claudio Vita-Finzi (University College London) had instilled the itinerant research interests that were well suited to the visual stage. On the media side, my partnership with BBC Science was developed by Matthew Barrett and John Lynch, aided by Steve Burns in the United States (variously at Discovery and National Geographic) and sustained by Jonathan Renouf, who oversaw most of my high­profile Earth science series (Earth: The Power of the Planet, Earth: the Climate Wars, How Earth Made Us, Rise of the Continents). But those most deserving of my gratitude for allowing me to pursue television geology for the last decade are my colleagues at Plymouth University, who helped free up the time for long and disruptive filming trips away and who endured the disruption of a “geocelebrity” in their midst. Thank you.

—IAIN STEWART, Plymouth University, Plymouth, UK