Simon Lamb

2014 Athelstan Spilhaus Award Winner

Simon Lamb received the 2014 Athelstan Spilhaus Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 17 December 2014 in San Francisco, Calif. The award honors an individual “for their enhancement of the public engagement in the Earth and space science,” through devoting portions of their career conveying to the general public the excitement, significance, and beauty of the Earth and space sciences.


The pathways of Simon Lamb and Athelstan Spilhaus share much in common. Both developed stellar careers in their respective area of Earth sciences, but both had a passion for science communication. Moreover, both recognized the power of pictures to convey science to the community. In the case of Spilhaus, the medium was his famous comic strips, which prompted John F. Kennedy to confide during a meeting with him in 1962, “The only science I ever learned was via your comic strip in the Boston Globe.” By the 1990s comic strips had been replaced by film and video. And it is this medium that Simon Lamb adopted to convey his considerable knowledge on Earth science to the public. Simon provided much of the intellectual direction for the eight-part series Earth Story, which was aired to an audience of millions in the United Kingdom on the BBC 2 channel. What is remarkable about this series is that the science issues are tackled head-on, and there is no dumbing down or oversimplifying.

Simon has published two books, including the successful popular science book Devil in the Mountain: A Search for the Origin of the Andes. This book was listed by the New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of 2004. However, his latest venture has been with the film Thin Ice, which was a -6-year project that began in 2007 and focused on scientists and their work on understanding climate change. The film was codirected and coproduced with David Sington and was made in Antarctica, Europe, the Arctic, New Zealand, and the Southern Ocean. Unlike Earth Story, where Simon was in the background with production and direction, Thin Ice was filmed, narrated, and presented by Simon. The film won awards at several film festivals. Simon’s goal now is to launch a major new film and Web initiative to explore technological solutions to climate change.

As someone who works closely with Simon in tectonics research, I see all the qualities that make him a fine science communicator. He writes beautifully clear prose, and his verbal communication skills are the best, but perhaps his greatest asset is his rare ability to cut through the fog and see the inherent simplicity of how our planet works.

Dr. Simon Lamb is a very deserving recipient of AGU’s 2014 Athelstan Spilhaus Award for science communication.

—Tim A. Stern, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand


I am thrilled to receive the Athelstan Spilhaus Award for 2014. Many things have contributed to my efforts to communicate the Earth sciences to a wide audience. When I was at school, I was made to write an essay every week on a topic chosen by my teacher—I must have written hundreds of these, and they taught me the basic craft of writing and how to communicate succinctly and clearly on a huge range of subjects. I drew heavily on this experience much later in my life when I came to write popular science books. At university, I became fascinated by filmmaking and ended up as president of the student filmmaking club. Here I learned how to use the power of the visual media to convey ideas. Many of my student friends went on to careers in the media, whereas I became a geologist. But over the years, I have managed to maintain a long-standing collaboration with my old friend from student days, David Sington—who today is a distinguished British filmmaker—and this has allowed me to make films about the Earth sciences at a professional level. And of course, I owe a huge amount to my academic colleagues—in particular, Philip England and Peter Barrett—for supporting me in my efforts through TV/film and book writing to take the Earth sciences to a wide audience. However, I am very much aware that in a profession where one is judged mainly by one’s original research output, there is a risk in devoting time to the public understanding of science. I suspect that Athelstan Spilhaus was very much aware of this himself, and—I am only guessing here—he had to cope with unwelcome comments from some of his colleagues about his science strip cartoons. It is easy to underestimate the importance of this type of science communication, yet it is quite possible that President Kennedy’s enthusiasm for putting man on the moon stemmed directly from reading them—Kennedy claimed that all the science he ever learned came from Athelstan Spilhaus! But whatever the risks, I think it is vital that all scientists communicate in whatever way they can to the rest of society, because humanity faces huge problems in the future—be they global warming, energy supply, health, or sustainability—and we will need to rely evermore on science to solve them.

—Simon Lamb, School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Institute of Geophysics, University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand