Hats off to Frederick Soddy

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Photo: Frederick Soddy, Lindau 1952. Source: The Frederick Soddy Trust

Here are my notes for a talk at the 60th Anniversary celebrations of a Trust set up by a Nobel Laureate to support (mostly) human geography projects. The event was a great celebration of the generosity of the Trust and all the people who give plenty of time to making it work, not least Soddy’s solicitor Peter Bunker who set it up in the first place. Peter shared very entertaining memories of the man, and of the extraordinarily diverse projects that the Trust has helped to set in train.

Hats off to Frederick Soddy, and indeed to all those grant giving trusts whose generosity and creativity help researchers and teachers to expand all of our horizons.

We are gathered to celebrate the work of the Frederick Soddy Trust. In other words we are here to celebrate creativity and generosity. There is the creativity of the people that started the trust (comprising Soddy and his solicitor, Peter Bunker) and of the people that it invests in. There is the generosity of the original founder, but also of the trustees and reviewers who give their time to create new opportunities for others. All of us who have been funded by The Trust owe thanks to both Soddy and all of the people who have served across sixty years.

In my case the Trust invested in a bundle of activity that included publications, a website and events, all coming under the heading of the Interdependence Day project. The work was founded in a partnership between myself, based at the Open University Geography Department, Renata Tyszczuk of the University of Sheffield architecture school and Andrew Simms, researcher and campaigner, together with his colleagues at the new economics foundation. We held two sell-out events here at the RGS that made great use of the varied spaces in this wonderful building.

In particular the Trust supported, and – notably – released matched funding, for our ATLAS of Interdependence. (editors in addition to me and Renata were Nigel Clark (Lancaster) and Melissa Butcher (Birkbeck), both formerly of OU Geography).  Matched funding or contributions in kind came from the Geographical Association for learning materials on the theme of interdependence, and also from the Open University and Sheffield University.

Full accounting of the value of Frederick Soddy Trust investments would also have to acknowledge the fact that the achievements of the Interdependence Day project have helped to build the confidence of other funders. In different ways, the project has sown the seeds of 2 million pounds of investment by the AHRC in our Earth in Vision and Stories of Change projects, both of which are inspired by the sense of ambition, experiment and risk that the Trust backed with the Interdependence Day project and its ATLAS.

The Frederick Soddy Trust was established just as the International Geophysical Year was being planned. The IGY of 1957/58 created the foundations for a new view of humanity’s place in the world. The IGY sparked the launch of the first satellites, and a truly global investigation of the atmosphere, geosphere and more, and the interactions between them. It started in motion collaborative global research that has revised our understanding of what it means to study ‘the whole life of an area’, to borrow a phrase from the Trust’s founding principles.

The ATLAS allowed us to draw together the varied threads of thought, debate and creativity that had made up the interdependence day project into one volume. It brought together geographers, architects, economists, artists, writers, campaigners and others to explore new ways of making sense of the dense web of interconnections generated by globalisation and global environmental change. The support of the Trust was vital in practical terms, but just as valuable was the less tangible sense that someone else thought that you might be onto something. One senior colleague described our venture with a raised eyebrow as ”quirky”, and didn’t mean it, I think, in a good way. Certainly it is an eccentric mix. But we aren’t about to apologise for that, particularly at an event that celebrates a founder who made an important contribution to the journal Nature in the form of a poem, the Kiss Precise (Frederick Soddy, The kiss precise, Nature, 137 (1936) 1021. 2.).

I am delighted to report that one publication coming out of our risky venture led BBC radio programme bulletins at the beginning of the day and the ITN Six O’Clock News at the end of it, provoking fresh thought amongst audiences about the ecological perversities of particular forms of trade. (The ITN graphics team who produced the giant animated gingerbread man leaping across a digital map may have helped us in this…). Another report was the first widely published discussion of the off shoring of UK carbon emissions to China, a theme that from that point on became a prominent element of debates about national carbon accounting. All this is suggesting that the world might need more rather than less ‘quirkiness’. We need to invite and sustain more sideways, provocative and fresh thinking. And this means creating well prepared seedbeds for diverse disciplines and professions to progress the difficult work of interdisciplinary collaboration. The Soddy Trust tends one such seed bed.

But it’s not always easy. When editing and managing a collective volume, decisions about the cover image can take as long as writing the book. Happily this was not the case with our ATLAS. NASA’s Earthlights image, a composite of photographs of the Earth at night, nicely summarised our story. On the one hand it is a magnificent expression of human achievement and ingenuity. Billions of electric lights are extending human capacity to talk, read, write and in so doing make better sense of the world. This illumination leaves us all better equipped to cope with events, come what may. But geography perhaps above all other disciplines has also told stories about inequality, suffering and waste. The nightglow portrayed by the Earthlights image is by no means equally distributed.

And of course knowledge of climate change, and biodiversity and habitat loss, also alters the way we read the image. No longer an uncomplicated celebration of human ingenuity, we have to recognise an uneven distribution of responsibility and vulnerability in a global environmental system that is being transformed in dangerous ways by humans.

A note on geography – and I should say I speak with the dangerous zeal of the convert, having jumped ship from social and political sciences (where they couldn’t even spell the word environment in the early 1990s). Geographers have a disproportionate opportunity – no obligation – to explore these responsibilities and vulnerabilities. In the last couple of decades this institutional meeting place of the natural and social sciences, and humanities, has played a particularly constructive role. It is the primary context within schools where teachers and learners address these issues. Of course many disciplines in universities are playing a big part, but these are challenges that require openness to varied insights and traditions. They require acceptance of imperfect syntheses. Geographers are natural synthesizers, and tend to be more comfortable than most working in intellectual and physical borderlands.

I’ll close with reference to one quietly charismatic example of this. It is another project that received Frederick Soddy Trust support, and also an RGS Neville Shulman award. One of my Open University colleagues, Johanna Wadsley, was one of the team leaders. Again, significantly, these awards helped unlock other institutional backing. The Hugging the Coast project was a research expedition of six women researchers, including two young Indonesian researchers. Taking to Kayaks, they investigated all dimensions of seaweed gathering in an Indonesian archipelago of the coral triangle: ecological, economic, cultural. This kayak based expedition had all the ingredients of the classic Boy’s Own Paper Edwardian expedition but with the moustachio’d gentleman amateur’s places taken by professional women. They conducted innovative social science research and public engagement work and came back with some great teaching case study material. This is just one more example of how the generosity of founder and trustees can unlock the creativity of others’ to make better sense of ‘the whole life of a particular area’. Thank you from all of us.

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