Ian Main

Geophysics Profiles: the life of an academic geophysicist

  1. How would you describe your work in ten words?

Identifying processes causing catastrophic failure events in the brittle Earth.

  1. What does a typical day in your working life look like?

Processing a lot of emails, preparing or delivering teaching material, working and interacting with a lively group of colleagues (including Jian Wang of the China Earthquake Authority shown on the right in the photo) and students in research, doing my share of administrative work, and sometimes providing independent advice to practitioners involved in managing or communicating risk from sudden-onset hazards.

  1. How did you become interested in geophysics?

I was inspired as an undergraduate by a talk by Keith Runcorn to the University of St Andrews Geological Society, where many physicists like me attended.  His hypothesis of moon magnetism due to super-heavy elements was later rejected, but I was captivated by the story and the combination of imagination and detective work involved.

  1. How did you get to where you are now?

Via a masters in Advanced Geophysics at Durham, a PhD in Seismotectonics and Seismic Hazard at the University of Edinburgh, supervised by Paul Burton of the BGS and Kenneth Creer at the University, and a role as a lecturer in Geophysics at the University of Reading, appointed and encouraged throughout by Clive McCann.  In the funding gap between masters and PhD, I supported my research by working as a folk singer/guitarist, but took the advice to not give up the day job. 

  1. What is your most memorable experience in your career as a geophysicist?

In research, deriving a hypothesis for the evolution of seismic precursors to rock failure in laboratory tests with Philip Meredith of UCL early in my career, and seeing this confirmed by a series of experiments conducted by Peter Sammonds.  Our recent direct observation of this process in live experiments in a synchrotron with Alexis Cartwright-Taylor, Florian Fusseis and Ian Butler, also of Edinburgh University, hot off the press, comes a close second.

More generally, I will not forget working on the International Commission for Earthquake Forecasting in the wake of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, meeting in L’Aquila itself during a live aftershock sequence, while scientists involved were being prosecuted for manslaughter.

  1. What do you think are the big challenges in geophysics in the next decade?

How we work with stakeholders to use our research to attack some of the grand challenges of our times, from making future cities resilient to earthquakes to contributing to the transition to a low carbon economy.

  1. What are your future plans/aspirations?

Working on the two specific challenges mentioned above, and looking forward to being back on the bench after a second stint in a senior leadership role within the School of Geosciences.

  1. What advice would you give to anyone considering geophysics as a career (especially those from currently under-represented groups, e.g. BAME, women or people with disabilities)?

The study of Earth and Planets is an endlessly fascinating pursuit. Take on a challenge you think is important and you will enjoy. Use your imagination, speak to colleagues with different experiences and disciplines, don’t be afraid to make hypotheses that might ultimately fail, and check everything rigorously. 

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