Earth: An Explorer’s Guide

When I was a young boy – back when the world was a very different place – I was interested in many things. It will not surprise you, perhaps, to learn that there wasn’t much internet access in my youth, there was certainly no YouTube, and the idea of getting DVDs was pretty exciting and high tech. TED talks were conversations with a bear, and Netflix was a fishing technique.

So, how was a young and geeky enthusiastic secondary student to learn about the wonders of the world? You could read, of course, but it wasn’t able to inspire you in to new fields and things you didn’t know about – you had to go looking for that kind of knowledge.

One of the big events, then as now, were the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lecture series – started by Michael Faraday in 1825, and broadcast on television every year. And so it came about that in 1995, the lectures were given by Dr (now Professor) James Jackson.

Entitled “Earth: An Explorer’s Guide”, the series charted the stories behind the science we now call plate tectonics. Although it deals with the understanding of the Earth’s history, tectonics is only a very young science, and this was the first time it had really been explained to the public audience like this.

Fast forward some years, and a new teacher was desperate for some resources for his teaching of Plate Tectonics. Unfortunately, the Royal Institution website only had videos from 1997 onwards – no luck. So, a random begging email was sent to Professor Jackson at Cambridge – telling the story of the inspirational lectures, and how a young Geography teacher would really love them to help teach students again – could he help?

In the post, three days later, a DVD with the lectures was received.

Accompanying them; a note from Professor Jackson, simply saying “keep exploring”.

And that’s the story of how I became a Geography teacher, and why I love physical Geography so much.

Why does this matter to you? Well, the Royal Institution have updated their catalogue. And the lectures are now available online, here:

I have set this as an optional enrichment task for my Year 9 (Year 11, and Year 13!) students this half term, and I am sure that Professor Jackson’s work will continue to inspire generations of students, as they have me.

In a time when it seems uncertain what we’re doing, how we can resolve the current crisis, and what we can do if exams are cancelled, I think this story matters. It reminds me of what I went in to education for, and why I can’t ever know how important it is – because I am not the little boy sat in the audience any more. Last year, despite it all, nine of my A level classes went out to study Geography or Earth Science at university.

Let’s keep exploring our world, and telling our stories. One day, they might inspire someone far more than any exams ever could.


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