Time by Degrees

This morning, the mail lady passed me a large and stiff envelope. I knew immediately what it was and this was confirmed by the University of Strathclyde lettering. It was a replacement certificate for one I lost when I moved to Europe. I opened it with a slight thrill to be honest because that small oblong piece of paper was three years of my life. A different era. A different Universe. A different persona.


The year was 1984 and I had spent virtually 6-months painstakingly creating a book. Hundreds of pages long, the book was hand typed and the top copy still has the white tippex blotches marking mistakes. Each diagram was hand drawn in ink and lettering stenciled on. Each photo was hand developed and printed by me in the dark room. The only bit I didn’t do was the gold embossed lettering on the black vellum cover. It was the culmination of 18-weeks of fieldwork (three summers of 6-weeks) in Nova Scotia, a year at the British Geological Survey at Ring Road Halton, Leeds examining fossils in their collection and the British and Canadian Museums as well as trying to recognize what I had collected and two years in Glasgow working on synthesizing a vast number of fossils, rocks, ideas and thoughts. In the process, I had successfully published 8 peer reviewed papers including 3 delivered personally at the Compte Rendu meeting in Madrid, Spain. I had traveled there and back by train from Glasgow….a story in its own right.

Back then I was much shyer. Tall, thin and gangly – like a pencil. Geology was my obsession and I was damned good at it. During the course of my research, my University supervisor left to become Chief Geologist at BP Coal and my BGS supervisor took an unexpected retirement. So, I was unsupervised. Instead, I found my own supervision from people like Dr. Erwin Zodrow in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Dr RMC Eagar of the Manchester Museum and Dr John Pollard of Manchester University. These men took me under their wings and guided me. Another man had great influence and still does today. Dr. MJ Russell. He took over as head of department at Strathclyde and although in a very different field, he encouraged me, removed barriers and taught me the art of science. Objective science. Not this politicized post modern pseudoscience you read about so much today. No, he wanted facts, evidence, theory and proofs. If the proofs didn’t pan out, back to the drawing board. Last I heard, he was a senior scientist at NASA. A brilliant man and I don’t think he will ever know how much he influenced me.

Dr. Michael J Russell. NASA – Emergence of life astrobiology.

My oral exam – a whole day of thesis defense – was tough but I knew it was in the bag as the examiner told me up front, he was recommending the PhD degree. By the time I came out, I was exhausted. But it was also fun. A discussion of material I knew better than anyone on the planet with a someone who was genuinely interested.

I realised at that time that I was the world’s leading authority on a topic so small and obscure that no one else would give a damn. I thought it humorous. I published another couple of papers and had material in the thesis for probably 20 more. I had tapped a rich and multi-faceted vein of paleontology, paleoecology, stratigraphy and regional geology. There was so much new and original content there. Eventually, as my career moved into IT, I lost the aptitude to keep publishing it.

Most of all though, I recall how proud my Mum and Dad were. Their smiles! It was an achievement and a first in our family. I was happy for my Father as well because he had never had the chance to go to college. Life circumstances and a disruptive war saw to that. Yet, it had been he, walking up and down beaches collecting rocks, fossils and minerals, tapping away at cliffs and quarries with hammers, and his avid interest in the natural world that had got me started in the first place.

Dad, as I remember him in our kitchen on his last visit…

Happy memories.

That single sheet of paper is the key to so many treasured memories.

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