Professor Nash discusses the recent Stonehenge research he led on which attracted global headlines
David Nash, Professor of Physical Geography talks about the origin of the giant sarsen stones at Stonehenge and the climate crisis.
Alternatively, most of the podcast is transcribed below – please note, this is auto-transcribed and there are likely to be errors throughout.
My guest this week is David Nash, professor of physical geography in the School of Environment and Technology. David has over 30 years of research experience, and recently his work on the origin of giant stars and stones at Stonehenge made headlines worldwide. David, thanks for coming on. We’ll talk about that research in a little bit, that you’re extremely experienced over 100 publications. Let’s go back a little bit, so the young David, first, where did your interests in what you ended up coming to specialise, come from?
That’s a very good question. I think I’ve always been interested in the natural environment and the geography of the world, so even as a small child, I used to love sitting and looking through the Times World Atlas that my parents had and wondering what places looked like and what people were doing there. So I always had this real fixation with, you know, I guess what the world looked like. And I had an opportunity when I was going to choose courses at university to take up a joint honours course in geology and physical geography. And that really kind of combined my interest in understanding about places and landscapes with an understanding about what might be influencing the shape of those landscapes. So really, for me, that sort of combination of looking at both geology and also the physical geography worked really well so that kind of fascination has really stayed with me.
Yeah. And so you work at the University of Brighton now. How have you arrived at this point? What’s your path been?
I did my undergraduate degree at Sheffield University and I then had the opportunity to stay on at Sheffield to do PhD research and I did that, I suppose I was very fortunate at the time, I was able to spend nine months in Botswana and South Africa looking at a project on the origins of some fossil drainage systems out in the Kalahari Desert. So I guess that really allowed me to combine my interests in landscape pollution over long periods of time. And really, when I finished that PhD, a job offer came up at Brighton. I’d worked for a year after my PhD at Sheffield in a tutorial role, and then this job advert came up at the university. I’d never been to Brighton before my interview and came down and this was way, way back in nineteen ninety-three on a foggy night in February, wandered along the seafront in thick fog and thought, ‘I love this place, this is absolutely fantastic’ and I’ve not left.
Yeah. What’s kept you here?
That’s a good question. I mean, there’s a lot of real, real nice things about working at the University of Brighton. I mean, first of all, I work with a fantastic bunch of colleagues and that’s hugely important for job satisfaction. The city itself is a great place to be. But also we have a nice bunch of students generally. They’re usually very grounded, and they’re here because they really want to be and they’re really passionate about learning about subjects. And I guess it’s that combination of things that make working at the university really good fun.
Where do you come from originally then?
So home originally is from Essex, I am an Essex man, so south of the southern part of Essex. I was quite surprised that I’d never been to Brighton before. We used to do day trips down to the south coast, but I think the closest that we got would have been Hastings. So we never really knew this section of the south-east of England at all.
Well, it’s great to have you now. Let’s talk about your teaching role that you have at the university. What are the modules that you teach on?
I teach at all three undergraduate level, so I kick off our fundamentals of physical geography module, so if there’s any new first years coming along, you’ll see me pretty much in week one for the first block of that course, where we look at kind of introductory landscapes. We look at things like how plate tectonics influence landscape, and we look at how climate shapes landscape. And then that then feeds into the second and third years of why I teach a very popular climate change module in the second year. So one of my only other interests is in long term climate variability. So I teach that module then also looking at environmental change over longer timescales. We run a really nice module called Ice Age Earth, where we look at how climate and environmental change has played out in the past. And then in the final year, I teach on a variety of motives, not one in particular.
We’re going to come to talk about climate change in a bit. How would you describe your personal teaching approach? Everyone’s very different.
Oh, that’s a good one. I suppose in a sense, when I was an undergraduate, the thing that I absolutely hated were lecturers who were disorganized. I like to know from the start of a session where we were going. So I liked a really good idea of what the structure was, why I was bothering listening to this and engaging with it. So I think my ethos is very much around kind of setting the framework for what we’re going to cover in a session so that students know what it’s going to be about and they know, I guess, really where they’re going to be at the end of the session. And then the other thing I do like to do is I like to use as many real world examples as possible to illustrate teaching, because I think everything can be really abstract. And if you’re talking about know landscapes in the parts of the world, that people might not have been to. Illustrating with plenty of visuals and also information from latest research papers, particularly in the second and third year. You know, I think exposing students to what’s going on and what the real cutting edge of knowledge is, is really, really important. So I guess that’s my ethos. Engage students and let them know what the main aims of the session are but very much try to engage them in latest ideas.
I know that in, you know, normal non-covid world, I don’t know how things are going to work going forward, but lots of field trips involved and then trying to get out and about in the local area as well. I guess before you came down here, I mean, you had such a rich landscape of places to go and visit, to use in your work.
Yeah, that’s right, I mean, so I teach our geography degrees and also our environmental sciences program, and that’s one thing that we do through a whole range of modules, is use the local environment initially for things like day visits So day trips, site visits and so on. But then also we run a whole series of UK overseas field calls. So just to give us some examples of these sort of things that I do say, for example, locally. So when you think of Brighton, you’ll think of the coastal setting. You’ll also think of chalk cliffs and we visit a number of Ice Age sites along those cliff lines. So even though the south coast of the UK wasn’t glaciated during the last Ice Age, it was affected by periglacial processes, it was blooming cold here, we were probably 100 kilometres south of a very, very large ice sheet and this would have been around about eighteen thousand years ago. So there’s all sorts of evidence of permafrost and periglacial processes, and they’re still preserved in the landscapes. So we take students out for a couple of day trips to get hands on experience looking at those kinds of sediments and landforms. I mean, it’s quite an amazing thing to stand by the ASDA supermarket at Brighton Marina and think that eighteen thousand years ago, what you would have been in would have been a permafrost landscape. So I think it really brings it home the sort of the magnitude of climate change when you get out into the local environment and see those sort of things.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a very strong department and lots of talented academics and researchers and working within it. Why should people come and study at the University of Brighton?
I think I mean, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. I think it’s partly about our expertise. So clearly, you know, we’ve got people who are all experts in their field, very, very strong publications, profiles, very good record of bringing in money from a variety of sources to do their research. And I think more importantly, they then feed that work back into what you learn. So I think that the research activity is really important. I think the other thing that that certainly from my experience, distinguishes Brighton from a number of other institutions is that we have pretty much an open door policy. So we don’t have office hours like many other departments do. You know, in my case, I encourage students just to drop an email, make an appointment, and we can have a conversation about what they really want to. If it’s really urgent then come and knock on the door. You don’t see that in every institution. So I think that’s a real bonus not only are people passionate about their research and their teaching, but also they have a lot of time for the students.
Yeah. Let’s get stuck in some of that research. You’ve made worldwide headlines recently with your work on Stonehenge, identifying where those giant Sarsen stones, used to build it, came from. Resolving a mystery which has been thousands of years in the making. And I imagine it was years of hard work and probably some quite patient work as well.
I think the work we’ve done at Stonehenge really is a kind of a culmination of work that I’ve been doing since then. In 1994, when I first started working on a rock type, technically it’s called Silcrete, it’s the same stone that Stonehenge is mainly built from. But I was looking at this material in Botswana where we get similar types of stone. And I guess over the years what I’ve done is I’ve built up a series of studies, really looking at what this stone is like, what it looks like under the microscope, how it formed, but very, very importantly, what influences his chemistry and the work that Stonehenge has used the information about the chemistry of rock to effectively try to match whereabouts the Sarsen stones came from, where the method really builds out from is work again coming in Southern Africa and it’s work linking with archaeology. The big feature of this has been it’s been a really nice example of interdisciplinary work. So what we’ve got is we’ve got geographers, geologists, we’ve got archaeologists, we’ve got statisticians all working together on a single project. And it’s very similar to other the work I’ve done in the Kalahari where we had very different problems but what we were able to do there was in that case was identified whereabouts the stone that was used to make stone tools from, came from, that was also Silcrete and it really through piloting that method in Botswana that we figured out, Well, actually, yeah, you can use the chemistry of this stone to say some quite powerful stuff. And it would have been probably about seven or eight years ago that I really first started having conversations about possibly applying this technique to Stonehenge and took a few goes to try and get some money to do the work. But yes, as you say, we’ve been able to come out with some I mean, probably I wouldn’t say not necessarily surprising, because what we’ve actually done is we’ve demonstrated that conventional wisdom probably was reasonably accurate, but we were able to do was to pinpoint for the first time an area where we think that the big sarsen and stones came from.
And where was that area?
So it’s an area, if anybody knows the sort of area around Stonehenge, Stonehenge is reasonably near Salisbury, it’s on Salisbury plains, to the north of that there’s an area of chalk hills, and they’re called the Marlborough Downs, quite close to the very nice market town of Marlborough. And people for a long while have assumed, well, the Sarsen stones probably would come from there, but purely on the basis that there are lots of large sarsen in that area. No other reason other then the fact that there are big grey sarsen stones there, they had big great Sarsen stones at Stonehenge. It’s the closest place, they must have come from there.
And as it turns out, they were absolutely correct. I guess I kind of thought, well, you can’t always assume these things because of what you know about Stonehenge. Stonehenge actually has two different sets of stones. So it has the big sarsen stones and then it also has a series of smaller stones there, which are referred to as the blue stones and these are different rock types and these are the ones that have been previously been traced to the western part of Wales. And our viewpoint, when we went into this was, well, if people are bothered sufficiently to transport stones two hundred kilometres, why wouldn’t they possibly carry even really, really large sarsens over long distances? So we didn’t want to go in with, you know, cutting out opportunity and cutting out possibilities without actually going and doing some proper rigorous testing of those ideas. And I guess what we were able to do was to knock out some of the the more distant sites and then through our sampling methods, able to pinpoint ones that were more local sites. So I guess the conventional wisdom was fine, but I don’t think you should always let it cloud the way that you design the science project.
Maybe they got a bit lazy after going all the way to Wales and just went local instead. Were you half hoping that you were going to throw out something from another 200 miles away.
So sarsen stones occur all across southern Britain. So if you drew a line from kind of North Norfolk across to Devon and then went south of that line, there are pockets of sarsen stones all over the place, south of that line. So we saw sampled from Norfolk and Suffolk and Essex and Kent. Sussex, there’s an awful lot of sarsen stones in the Brighton area. That’s really where our, you know, we’ve done quite a lot of work in the Brighton area. And then they’re also in Devon. The biggest cluster is in Wilkshire. There’s no reason to think why they might not have been brought from some of those more distant places, other than the absolutely enormous effort it would have taken to shift 30 ton stones. But even then, I mean, even though they’re only, I say only, coming from 20 or so kilometres north of the site, still moving. You know, you think of human endeavour involved in shifting a 30 ton of boulder.
I know. How do you do that, all that time ago? How?
Yeah. If you look at the discipline of archaeology. I’m not an archaeologist but it’s been a great pleasure working in the field of archaeology, which is referred to as experimental archaeology. So this is where people try out possible technologies and they have had a go at this with some of the large mock-up boulders at Stonehenge. There was a long idea that pthey used rollers of some sort. I think that’s been largely removed – is the right way to put it. And now the idea is they probably dragged them on sleds of some sort, possibly over wetted surfaces, possibly during winter periods when the ground was frozen, but regardless, I mean, getting stuff moving, I mean, getting them out of the ground in the first place, because these stones would have been partly buried. You know, you’ve got to dig them up to get them. You’ve got to get them down slopes, up big slopes, across rivers. It’s it’s quite bewildering to think that people would have had the will to do that.
Yeah, you needed the core from one of the stones, didn’t you, to actually do this research. And I think I’ve read that it was missing for a while.
Yeah, no, that’s absolutely correct. So Stonehenge as we see it today is actually the product partly of conservation. So over the years, stones that were leaning have been pushed back up upright. Stones that had fallen over have been re-erected. And it’s all to sort of protect the monument, but also to improve the experience for the visitor. So you could actually be able to interpret what the monument will look like when you visit it. And there was work in 1958 that raised three stones that had fallen over. And these were stones that, if you imagine Stonehenge, it’s got a big outer circle of sarsen stone, and that’s the one you see on all the iconic images. And then inside that there’s a horseshoe shaped arrangement of really, really big, they call them Trilithons, and those are basically where you’ve got two sarsen uprights with a Lintel stone across the top of them, looking a bit like an enormous doorway. And there’s five of these arranged in a horseshoe shape in the middle. And it was one of these that had fallen over, so rather than having just a pile of large boulders they would re-erect these stones and during the course of doing that, they discovered that there was a big crack running through the length of one of the big Sarsen stones, and they were really concerned that if they raised it it might fall over again. So they decided they were going to pin the stone. We wouldn’t do this sort of thing nowadays would probably leave it lying on the floor. But they raised the stone vertically and then they drilled three horizontal holes through the stone. They didn’t just drill them out, they extracted the stone as a core from each of the holes. And then they put metal rods through the holes and pinned them with metal bolts. A bit like you do with the wall of a house if you were concerened that it was bowing, you would pin it. And then they plugged the holes with Sarsen and one of the the members of the drilling team, a man called Robert Phillips, was on site and he worked for the company, the drilling. And at the end of his work, he was given custody of one of the cores and he took it back to his office. So basically, it was given to the company and he had it hanging on a wall in his office until the mid-1970s in a Perspex tube, along with a nice watercolour of the drilling work being done. And then when he retired, he was given permission to take it with him. And I’m assuming nobody else in the company was involved in that work. So he took it to the United States with him and it moved around, he lived in four places around the states, and this perspex tube with this cylinder of rock moved around with him. And then in 2018, and he was approaching his 80th birthday, at this time, he asked his sons to get in touch with English heritage. They’re the people that managed Stonehenge, to say, well, I’ve got this piece of Stonehenge, would you like it back? I mean, I’m guessing it’s through talking to one of his sons, it’s a bit like it’s an old man tidying up his business, doing clearing up affairs and thinking, well, actually, you know, this really could do with going back. So he arranged for it to be returned to English heritage. And I got an email in 2018 saying this piece of core has been returned, or this whole piece of core has been returned would you like to have a look at it. And I nearly bit their hands off of that, we were already doing work at Stonehenge at the time and we’d already started this particular project. But what we were lacking was the ability to see the inside stone, so the problem with Stonehenge is was it was set four and a half thousand years and those stones have been withering in all that time. They’ve been exposed to the elements and the surface chemistry is now a little bit different because minerals would have been weathered away and really for this sort of sourcing work, what you want is is to be able to compare fresh stone with other fresh stone. So having access to this core gave us an absolutely unique opportunity to analyse a piece of fresh stone right in the middle of one of these enormous Sarsens. And we could then compare the chemistry of that with fresh rock, from areas of Sarsen from other parts of the country, so we overcome all the problems to do with weathering.
Incredible story that’s being carted around parts of the United States. What was the feeling like when that email dropped? I mean, that must’ve been quite a shock.
It was interesting because the initial opening line of the email was basically, ‘I understand that you’re working on a project at Stonehenge at the moment.’ The first thing I thought was, ‘oh, my goodness, what have we done wrong?’ Have we done something awful? You know, and then I read on further and you’re like, oh, my goodness because there are lumps of Stonehenge in museums all over Britain. But what we don’t know with any of them, so these are places that have been excavated at the site, but what we don’t know with any of them is which stone they came from. So they’re just a lump of rock that could or may or may not have been actually from one of the Sarsen stones. So this was really kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually look at something, you know, exactly you can put your finger on whereabouts it from on one of the stones because I mean, getting, understandably I hope, getting permission to sample a Stonehenge is impossible. It’s a royal heritage site. It’s got the highest level of protection of pretty much any heritage site in Britain. And they’re not overly keen on you taking a chisel and a geological hammer to it, so, you know, it was a real special opportunity to be able to analyse that material. And quite a pressured opportunity as well, actually, because you think, well, we’ve got this one shot here. We’ve been given permission to sample. We only took a very small piece of it. It’s only about seven centimetres long that we are able to analyse. So we took this 7cm piece and we cut it in half lengthways. So English Heritage retained one half of a cylinder and we analyzed the other. But we were very much like this is it, this is our one shot. If we muck this up, we’re not going to get another go at this. Then seeing that you get results that actually match areas was was amazing.
I can sort of imagine the team looking at that stone and putting it away so safely every night when you were on your way home, just like this, this tiny piece of stone. It’s the missing piece for you to actually be able to do this research, which would have been a very exciting moment for you and your team, I imagine, what sort of equipment and research techniques did you need to analyse the stone?
Yeah, so so what we’ve done, you’re absolutely right about it being, you know, locking it away. So, I mean, we had we had it locked up securely at Brighton. It went to the University of Bristol, where it was cut in half. And then it came back to Brighton and then it went to the Open University where the samples were cut. It went to British Geological Survey to be scanned. So we did a CT scanning of it, the sort of things you did for brain scanning. so this is a little bit of rock was a C.T. scan so that we could see all the porosity inside it and see if there were any structures in it. It was scanned using some of the highest tech chemical scanners. It’s been to the Natural History Museum where it’s been put under a scanning electron microscope. So you can look at it in ludicrous detail to get an idea of what the cement types are and how those different segments hold. It’s probably the most analysed piece of rock outside a lump of moon rock, I would imagine, at the moment. I mean, we’ve team worked with all sorts of partners. We’ve been able to throw every single conceivable high tech approach to this, and partly because we think it’s quite important that all of this data is there in the public domain. And it’s archived properly. So that people in the future, if they want to look at the chemistry or the mineralogy or the internal structure, they’ve got access to all of those data sets. We’re still doing work on this, with this piece of stone, but once we’re done, we’re going to make sure it all gets properly archived and documented, so it’s there is a legacy as well, because it’s an important little bit of rock, potentially for archaeologists, for geologists, for whoever.
Yeah. So what’s the research you’re doing from here then?
What we published so far is very much around the source of the stone. So that was really using a subset of the data. That was the real high high resolution geochemical data that we’ve used there. What we’re going to publish next is a paper purely about the core itself, so very much describing the material to how it would have formed and its mineralogy, and it’s wider chemistry and structure and so on. So really more of a study of what Stonehenge is built from, rather than necessarily where it came from.
Yeah. And has Stonehenge been something that you’ve been interested in for a long time? Is it something that you came across or is it something you chased?
Oh, well, I guess like anybody living in England, you kind of know about Stonehenge, haven’t you, all your life, pretty much. I’ve got a photograph somewhere of me aged, I must have been about five, sitting with my mum with a flask of tea on one of the stones in Stonehenge, because it used to be a place, because there were no fences when I was a child, and it was a stopping-off point on holiday. So we used to pop up to Stonehenge and sit and have our lunch there. So I’ve kind of known about it all the time and been fascinated by it. And I guess in a sense, when I sort of thought about how we might apply what we’ve already found out about a silcrete to Stonehenge, I guess in a sense, that was something that I then kind of started to, I wouldn’t use the word chase. But what I started to do was talk to archaeologists who worked in that area. So part of our team that we work with, Tim Darvill, who’s at the University Bournemouth, and Mike Parker Pearson who is at UCL, and they’re probably. two of the world authorities on Stonehenge. So I wanted to make sure that, you know, we were working with the best people to do the job really. And then at Brighton, we’ve got a colleague who teaches on our own science degree, who’s a phenomenal geochemist, absolutely brilliant. And then George Osmani, the artist who’s a physical geographer, but he’s an amazing statistician and really, really good at programming and using computer programs that I don’t even begin to understand to really get analysis. I think from the start of this it was spotting a possible problem, but then assembling the best possible people that you could use to work with to solve this problem. And grateful that we’ve got some of those Brighton and that we were able to work with real world leading archaeologists who work at Stonehenge.
Yeah, I mean, It did receive media attention around the world, did you expect that or do you think did you expect it because it’s one of those sites which is just so fascinating to people around the world. I mean, it’s not one of the Seven Wonders of the world, but it has been a finalist to be one. So it’s known worldwide and it’s one of those just fascinating places where I guess people just don’t know how it got there. And it’s been there for such a long time, like the pyramids or something, and it really captures the imagination.
I think it doesn’t mean because we had an awful lot of support from English heritage during this work, and they were absolutely amazing in giving us site access. I mean, they even arranged for scaffolding so that we could do analyses of the Lintel stones as part of our work. So we were there at the crack of dawn, up the scaffold tower, doing analysis, but they basically said, you have to be prepared for this. They had it listed, I mean, where the Sarsen stones come from, they had listed as one of their big 6 questions about Stonehenge, so they already regarded it as a really important thing for them to understand. And when we said, well, we think we found it out, they were saying, OK, brace yourself, because anything to do with Stonehenge gets lots of coverage. But because it was a really important question that, you know, people have been thinking about it for 500 years, whereabouts do these stones come from, they were preparing us for it to be relatively big news. I think I realized it was big news when we found out that we had the BBC and ITV and Channel four all wanting to film us and, you’re like: Oh, yeah, this is quite big. And then after that, I mean, I think on the day that the paper was published, it really was quite silly, really, the amount of coverage. Fantastic for the university because, you know, every single press article mentions the university, so I was really pleased that Brighton gets a good profile out of that. But I’ve got relatives who live in Wollongong, in South Australia, and it made page four or something like that of their local newspaper. It was on the main front page of newspapers in Athens. It was all rather strange, really. It’s a monument, yeah, and it is partly because of the air of mystery about it, because we still don’t quite know what it was for. We know a huge amount about Stonehenge, way more than we know about other Neolithic monuments, because it’s been a site where so much research has been done. But we’re still trying to get to the grips of the why. I think that’s what people really like still. I think that’s why it captures people.
Yeah, you must feel incredibly proud though: you just said hundreds of years of research and wondering, you know, some of the big answers to these questions. To have been part of that team, to have done that. That means you go down in history but it does mean that your name is going to be attached to that. So that’s quite a proud moment, surely.
No, it’s fantastic. I mean, it’s not why you go into academia, I have to say, because, I mean, my real desire has been to do, is doing the background science that helps you to answer questions like this, because without having done all the background work about the properties and the chemistry, you wouldn’t be able to do this kind of thing. But when you do get when you do get the opportunity to address a question like that and come up with an answer, I mean, it’s amazing. It’s absolutely fantastic. Yeah. And I think for everybody on the team, everybody was excited by it. And we were really, really pleased, so it was published in Science Advances, which is one of the biggest journals, international journals in the world. So the fact that they were, you know, as keen to see it published in somewhere like that was a real, it’s a real privilege. Yeah.
And let’s move on to some of your research and teaching on climate change, historical climate change. So historical climate change, can you explain that research that you look into?
Yeah. I mean, this is this is going to sound completely different and you’re going to be thinking, well, how on earth do you get from doing work on rocks in desert through to looking at historical climatology? There is actually a very good link in the sense that when I was doing my PhD work, so I said earlier on I was looking at fossil drainage, so ancient drainage systems in the Kalahari, one of the things that I looked at were the rocks that were associated with these drainage systems. But the other thing that I did, I was trying to figure out when these drainage systems might have dried up. So I started reading lots of historical accounts of the Kalahari, so written by really early travellers, written by missionaries, written by people like David Livingston when he was traveling around the southern Africa. And a lot of these people exploring the Kalahari crossed these valleys. And you can tell pretty clearly where abouts they were because they wrote really clear references. So I started off looking at rereading this historical source. You can actually tell quite a lot about environmental change from these sources. And then, I mean, as with a lot of research, there’s a there’s an element of luck. So with the Stonehenge work, I mean, it was luck that that core came back at the time when it did right in the middle of when we were doing a piece of work there, it was luck that I was able to meet up. I was contacted by a colleague of the University of Liverpool, who I still do work with, who is a historical geographer and she said, oh, I’ve seen your work about the evolution of these dry valleys and how you can use documentary sources, she said, ‘are there any archives relating to that particular time period?’ And said, ‘we’ll have a look, let’s try and find out.’ And we found huge missionary archives in London and got a small grant. And then did some work and I guess I would say the rest is history, but that would be a bit cheesy. But what we were able to do was, was really reading historical accounts to see what people say about the weather. So the Brits are obsessed with the weather, 19th century missionaries in Botswana were equally obsessed with the weather, probably even more so because they relied on the weather to grow their food. The methods that we’ve used, the ways of analysing what people write to then try to unravel what it’s saying about past climate. So what we could do was pull together the historical record with the instrumental record. And then, lo and behold, you can start looking at how climate has changed over much, much longer time periods.
And then here you are teaching on a module, which is a huge talking point, especially, I imagine, among some of the students that are now coming through and starting with you, a lot more engaged in the climate crisis in general, which we will come to you in a moment. When you look back then, how climate changed over the hundreds, thousands of years and then you look at the current situation now, how much does that worry you?
Yeah, no, I think it should be a really big source of concern because what we now have a really good handle on is just how rapidly and how much higher temperatures are than they should be, given the the timing within the long term cycles of climate change that we know we’re in. So I’ve got the advantage that I’ve got a very long view of climate change through looking at this module of Ice-age Earth, where we we look back over hundreds of thousands of years. And the thing that we know from that is that really for the last five hundred years or so, the earth really should be getting cooler. So the Earth’s climate is partly controlled by how it orbits the sun. And what we know from that is that the radiation recedes, but the earth gets the last 500 or so years should be slowly, cyclically reducing. We should be getting colder, ought to be heading into the early stages of another ice age now. But what we’ve seen in the last hundred years, maybe even less than that, has been an incredibly rapid rise in temperature to the point now where we’re warmer than we have been certainly in the last thousand years and certainly way, way warmer than we should be. And we don’t have examples in earth history of where we warmed that quickly. So we don’t know what’s going to happen as a result of that. We’ve done this really, really big, uncontrolled experiment with our climate. You know, it’s like let’s pump loads of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere without necessarily knowing what’s going to happen if we often refer to analogs in history to tell us maybe what might happen. That’s why I think people ought to be concerned, because we just don’t know what’s going to happen as a result of this.
Well, I mean, we all know we’ve got to make changes, but then we don’t all know because I’ve also read that you have used the climate change model to consider the views of sceptics as well. But with you, with all your knowledge of the thousands of years of how it’s mapped out, how do you use that as a part of your module?
I’m really keen on, it’s interesting. Students really don’t like to be exposed to the views of climate sceptics, because when you’re doing A-Level or courses prior to university, climate change is a fairly black and white thing. I think the way it’s often taught is that it’s happening and you don’t often hear dissenting voices. And I think it’s really important to hear dissenting voices, but I think more than anything is to understand the grounds on why they are dissenting. So actually understanding why climate sceptics say the things they do, I think is really interesting. And there are some things that they actually, what climate sceptics say, really to a certain extent, exposes weaknesses in climate change arguments. For example, they point out that the network of meteorological stations that we use to get our background understanding of what climate has been like is really very good and it’s actually true. So if you look in the United States, I mean, what you really want is you want to know what you’re measuring is being measured reliably. So if measuring temperature, you really want to know the instruments are right and have been recording accurately over the whole period of time that they’ve been measuring. And there are weather stations in the United States where they started off in fields and they’re now in the middle of university campuses and they’re now surrounded by concrete, whereas before they were in fields and they haven’t moved. But the impacts of that will be that they cause a local warming in that particular area. And that sort of thing in a sense is a good thing because what climate skeptics have done have exposed those sorts of issues and then climatologists can come along and say, actually, you’re right, we need to correct for those and remove those sites where there might be problems and when they’ve done that, they still show the same warming trend. So, yeah, you know, sceptics, I think, have their uses because what they do is, if you’ve got people who are really critical, they expose issues. And what you can then do is see if this is a real issue? If it is – can we correct for it? And then that improves the science. So I guess that’s the spirit that I teach about climate sceptics in. What are the issues? What are they picking out? What are they identifying as problems? And then can we actually tackle those problems?
Yeah, it’s quite embedded though, isn’t it, sometimes those sceptics. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve watched them, it’s really interesting watching very recently on BBC, the rise of the Murdoch dynasty. And I don’t know if you see that, but in the final episode, one of the final clips is of Rupert Murdoch talking about his climate change scepticism. Does that kind of come into the module as well?
Well, we don’t necessarily teach exactly about the media and climate change within the module, but that’s exactly a topic that a number of students are interested in. So over the years, I think I’ve supervised two or three really, really good dissertations where students take that approach and do media analyses. So they at runs of newspaper articles in different, different newsrooms, see if there is evidence for scepticism coming out. So, you know, looking to see are the newspapers reporting as if climate change is a natural thing or whether it’s anthropogenic. And certainly different news sources have different levels of that sort of view coming in. More so in some of the US media. So, for example, one student did an analysis of Fox News and their website and Fox News definitely has more emphasis on natural climate variability over human induced changes. And that’s also the news channel where the President of the United States obtains much of his news from. So it’s not surprising that the media have a big influence. They really shape public opinion on climate change. Quite a difficult thing to report on. It’s not an easy thing to, you know, convey to the public, because it’s quite complex and there’s lots of uncertainties.
We touched on it just now, but how have you seen students change in their approach to climate change over the years that you’ve taught? And from the outside, it seems to be taking a lot more seriously by a younger generation?
Oh, definitely. I think it always has done. I’ve been at Brighton since 1993. When I started, we only ran the environmental sciences course. So I think I’ve been used to students with real, if you want to call it green interests all the time, and I think Brighton attracts that kind of student. I think that with the strong emphasis on green politics in the city and with people like Caroline Lucas being very prominent advocates for greener technologies and taking things like climate change seriously, I think we seem to attract students who are really interested in that, which is great. I guess what I try to make sure is that they are, try to make sure that they’re critical of it as well. So not coming in with a completely blinkered ‘climate change is happening,’ but actually being really critical about the science behind it and understanding what the issues are.
Yeah, that must hearten you, I imagine, though, that people are coming in with a lot more of a passion?
I’m sure as any other person you talk to, it really makes a big difference if students are committed and their passionate involved. And it’s nice on a module like climate change, where you can see that students are really genuinely interested in their reading around the subject and they’re ready to question you and they’re ready to put their views in then, yeah, it’s great. It’s really good. It’s challenging because obviously every single year you have to dig up whole new updates to your teaching materials because it is a fast-moving area of science. But that’s brilliant because at least you know what you teach is absolutely current.
Just rounding off this, very quickly, at the start of this conversation we talked about how I asked you how much it concerns you. And you know, clearly given the data that shows that it’s reasons why we should all be pretty concerned. But do you think, in some ways, a change of behaviour maybe during the pandemic, I mean, there aren’t any real positives to a pandemic like this, but a lot of people have changed the way they live, the way to behave, the way we get to and from places, where we need to make that car journey. Maybe that means the carbon footprint won’t be so big going forward. Do you think those would be permanent changes for some or do you think people will just go back to their old normal? I mean, I’m just thinking here in Brighton we’ve got these new cycle lanes and motorists are already complaining about how slow the traffic is on the seafront.
Well, yeah, I know, exactly. I mean, I think behavioural change is quite a tricky thing to maintain. I think there’s some real positives out of the pandemic in the sense that we are doing now, an awful lot more of our meetings about communication are being done electronically. And I think that’s a real bonus. And we’ve already seen during the course the pandemic that air quality has improved in major cities. And also, if you look globally at the figures for CO2 emissions they’ve dropped. They’re starting to creep up again now in various parts of the world. But, yeah, if you stop industry and you stop people using fossil fuels to drive transport, you can you can lower CO2 levels. Nowhere near to the level that we need to but you can make really big changes. My feeling on those sorts of changes going, as if now government and organizations embed some of those benefits into the general practice. So, you know, we need to improve public transport. And there’s been a bit of a mistrust over public transport because people have been very concerned about, you know, the risk of disease and transmission in there. But you would really hope that we can cut down on car use and people can see that walking and cycling is a better option. And also, big, big international conferences have been canceled. And what that means is that, you know, 15000 people all flying to Vienna from all around the world, for example, to go to a conference, if they can, they can do a very similar thing online, not quite the same. A different model is possible.
Yeah. And it’s been really great speaking to you about all this. Obviously, we could talk for a long time. But I’m conscious taking a bit too much time. At the end of each podcast, we ask some questions away from your work. This is how we wrap up every podcast. So sort of a bit of a quick fire round. First of all, what advice would you give to your younger self?
That’s a nice question. Probably to stick at it, I think that would be the best advice that I could give. Certainly during my career. The work at Stonehenge is an example. I think we had four goals of trying to get funding for that work through some really big funding agencies. And they weren’t wearing it. But my feeling was, no, this is a good idea. Don’t give up on this, stick at it. So, I mean, that certainly would be my advice. But, yeah, if you’ve got a good idea, run with it.
If you could pick any other subject to study at the University of Brighton, you don’t necessarily have to have the skills to do it. What would it be?
I think we touched on that earlier on, which I think, something I would be really interested in is and it might sound rather strange from someone with a science background, but I’d love to do Media Studies. It would be absolutely fascinating to do Media Studies and I think partly because what we’ve learned through this pandemic is the way that media can be used. And I’m really fascinated in the power of media to shape opinions. So I think actually understanding a bit more about how journalists work and how the media operate would be really, really interesting.
Definitely. If you haven’t watched that documentary, do watch The Rise of the Murdoch dynasty on BBC. It is a fascinating watch.
I think the other thing I would say is, I mean, because we’ve got in terms of media studies that people are interested in climate change of media. That’s a real research strength in Brighton. And it’s something that I think has real potential.
Can you pick a favourite place in Sussex?
I used to live in Brighton & Hove. I mean, since I’ve been working at the University I’ve lived in Hove and I’ve lived in the Fiveways area in Brighton and I love living in Brighton. One of the best things I ever did was move out of Brighton though. So as much as I love the city, I love to now be able to go back there and visit. And I’m now more of a rural Sussex person and I would actually say get away from the Chalklands, get away from the coast, get into the wild. So into the slightly more northern parts of the county where the landscape’s a bit more varied. And I would say, you know, head a little bit north, rather than necessarily sticking to the coast because Sussex has got a huge amount of beautiful places to explore beyond the coastline.
And if you could get visitors to Brighton something to do, with experience on a weekend away, perhaps. What would you suggest they do?
Well, I think it depends on what time of year people are in Brighton. But I mean, what I would say is if they get the opportunity to make sure they’re around at the time of the year when The Brighton Festival runs, if it runs again, hopefully when we’re back to whatever normal becomes, because Brighton during Festival month is absolutely fantastic and has a as a real buzz about the place. So I would say, you know, just go and immerse yourself particularly in some of the fringe stuff. Yeah. And the other time of year, depending, again, when they’re on, it’s not necessarily an easy time to get down but if you can get them around Pride Weekend in August. Brighton is amazing during Pride weekend, there’s such a buzz around the city. So again, I think it’s trying to coincide with some big events there. I think between those two, they really sort of show, I think that the unique flavour of what Brighton’s like as a city.
Yeah. And tell us something interesting about you, which a lot of people may not know?
That’s a good question as well, I cook a mean curry, how’s that?
Yeah, what kind of curry?
Oh you name it, I’ll have a go at it but at the moment, the great thing about lockdown has been has been vegetable gardening, so I have the biggest crop of chillis this year that I’ve ever managed to grow. So I’m really looking forward to making some spicy food.
Are you in the sort of camp that the spicier, the curry, the best of the curry?
Got to have a good flavour to it, so I like heat in a colour but you’ve got to be able to taste it. So I’m going nice nagger chilies at the moment and I’ve got the most beautiful flavour as well as being so evil.
Evil and beautiful at the same time.
Yeah exactly. The femme-fatale of chillies.
And if you could pick three people to host at a dinner party, past or present, who would they be and why?
Two immediately spring to mind: I’m a big music fan. Probably the first person I ever saw in concert life was Peter Gabriel. People who are young probably may not have even heard of Peter Gabriel, but he did a huge amount, particularly for what we now call world music. So he brought a huge array of international artists, African artists, American artist, to the World Forum. And people may have heard of things like one man festival. I’d love to meet Peter Gabriel, but I don’t know what I’d talk to him about because I’d probably have a major fan boy moment, be completely speechless, but it would be fascinating to speak to him about his life and his travels more than anything, finding out where he’s been and what influences him. So, yeah, Peter Gabriel would be one. Probably a second one that would be maybe a little bit more of an obvious thing, but it’d be great to have a chat to Barack Obama as well. I think that Peter Gabriel and Barack Obama would have quite an interesting playoff in terms of conversations. But I just think that I’d love to know how someone has gone through what he’s been through and particularly the level of flack that’s been thrown at him in the U.S. from opposition, how on earth do you manage to carry on like that and maintain your dignity and be a real statesman whilst you know everybody’s at you and you’re being criticized? I think I admire is politics but I think I admire the way that he conducts himself.
And one more.
The third one is really difficult. I’d probably want to go back in history. I mentioned earlier on and I think it would be really interesting to meet some of these figures that I’ve read about in some of my historical work. So, I mean, an obvious one would be somebody like David Livingston, actually, I mean, I’m fascinated by the idea of what on earth motivates people to travel in places where they’re aren’t roads and you don’t know where you’re going. There are no maps. You’re making maps as you go through. And it could be really interesting to find out what motivates those sorts of people but also what was the experience like? Because I imagine that it would be seriously grim at times, and so I’m fascinated by what drives people to have that level of determination. I think I get the impression he was a fairly unpleasant person as well, actually, from what I’ve reads o it’ll be quite interesting to find out what he’s like over dinner.
Three good guests. Professor David Nash, thank you so much for your time and congratulations about the Stonehenge research. We’re looking forward to hearing more in the coming years as well. Really great stuff.